“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” That memorable line from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) addresses the absurdity of nuclear war and the incompetence of the architects behind such worldly aggression. Back then it was still fresh in the minds of those that lived through the Cold War and the state of panic our country endured during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, our nation is on the brink of another possible standoff. Currently it’s was with the nuclear Iran (curators of the Anti-American Museum and housed in the old evacuated US Embassy in Tehran), next could be North Korea. Them! (1954) was the first feature to really address the effects of the atomic age and the environmental damage caused by creating such an unnatural destructive element close to a decade after Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped on Japan during World War II.
Them! drops us into the New Mexico desert, where Police Sgt. Ben Peterson, a young James Whitmore of Shawshank Redemption (1994) and his partner find a little girl in shock wandering in the desert. The girl’s catatonic state only subsides when she reacts in fear to the unnerving and memorable high pitched noise of an approaching entity in the desert wind. The boys in blue retrace her steps to a mysterious, severely destroyed mobile home and a general store with the owner’s dead body. The investigation at both crime scenes reveal money and possessions were not motive, but instead a barrel of sugar, smashed open upon all of the debris. A plaster cast of an odd footprint outside of the crime scene is sent to Washington D.C. for analysis. With The Feds and Department of Agriculture privy to the footprint’s findings, experts are sent to the dusty little town for further investigation.
FBI agent Robert Graham, James Arness of Gunsmoke (1955), teams up with Ben and with the support of Dr. Harold Medford, Edmund Gwenn of Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and his daughter Dr. Patricia Medford, they destroy the colony of ants in the middle of the desert. Medford explains that the atomic testing in 1945 developed the dangerous giant mutant ants that crept into town and attacked the locals. All is not over, they soon discover that two queen ants have flown away to Los Angeles and have started a huge colony in the city’s underground. Upon the discovery of her slain husband, a mother reports that her two children are missing, leading our investigative team and good old US Army into the belly of the beast to end this battle with the ants once and for all.
Them! Directed by Gordan Douglas of They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and original treatment by G.W. Yates of Frankenstein 1970 (1958), is a black and white science fiction flick (with a red opening title card) that was originally intended for 3-D (the old school kind, not the gimmicky garbage pushed on us every other new release) before Warner Brothers Pictures nixed that idea. Because of the preparation of certain shots, many of the camera set-ups for 3-D still remain in the film, like the opening titles and the fun flame thrower shots aimed directly at the camera which actually makes a viewer wish the production had pulled of its original 3-D goal. Besides the creepy crawly eye candy that cast and crew had successfully produced, cameos by a young Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek (1966) and Fess Parker of Daniel Boone (1964) are unexpected treats.
Them! is a top notch atomic age creature feature that employs effective special effects, avoids camp and takes itself seriously while delivering a very intriguing plot with believable acting to sell the story. Upon its release, Them! was nominated for an Oscar by the Academy for its special effects and was lauded for its editing by winning a Golden Reel Award. After 60 years, Them! still packs a punch as a well-made movie and its social commentary is still as relevant today as it was back then when Ozzie & Harriet were sleeping in separate beds. The American Film Institute (AFI) still believes Them! to be an important film in cinema as it has been placed on many top film lists and is also the direct inspiration for the song Them!, by punk legends The Misfits (and very unDanzig) release, Famous Monsters (1999)
So, as art imitates life and our social and moral landscape is questioned with the upcoming nuclear policies proposed between the US to Iran, Dr. Medford summed it up best with, “when man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.” I do hope all works out and we find a peaceful solution to the tension resolving nuclear arms, until then I will just hit here and wish…while I listen to 99 Luftballoons on repeat.
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- Rick Baldwin is a writer, filmmaker, film/music historian, and can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ricksrhetoric/
- Rick is also president of The Winchester Clark County Film Society and can be found on https://www.facebook.com/WCCfilmsociety
- Twitter Rick Baldwin@rickbaldwin79 and firstname.lastname@example.org