Them! (1954)

Them! (1954) is a science-fiction nuclear monster red scare big bug monster film, which was a huge and surprise hit in its day.

The film is based on an original story treatment by George Worthing Yates, which was then developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and adaptation by Russell Hughes.

Directed by Gordon Douglas, and starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, and James Arness, Them! (1954) was one of the first of the 1950s nuclear monster films, and the first big bug feature film to use insects as the monster.

A small girl is found wandering alone in the New Mexican desert, the only survivor of an unknown calamity that befell her family. When roused from her catatonia, she can only scream: "Theeeem!"

Next a nest of gigantic irradiated ants is discovered in the same desert. The giant ants quickly become a national threat when it is discovered that two young queen ants and their consorts have escaped to establish new nests. The national search that follows finally culminates in a battle with Them! in the concrete spillways and storm drain system of Los Angeles.

Dr. Harold Medford: None of the ants previously seen by man were more than an inch in length - most considerably under that size. But even the most minute of them have an instinct and talent for industry, social organization, and savagery that makes man look feeble by comparison.

Science fiction was a genre that evolved quickly in the 1950s, having had something of a slow and unsure start. the paranoia and threat of film noir were easily transferred to the genre — but science fiction could say a lot, and leave so much unsaid and in mystery that it became a most expressive form of mass entertainment.

One of the things that science fiction always says in 1950s style is that the saving of the world can be left to the state, with its scientific and military elites. The state moreover offers something of a collective hero, a clear echo of the concluding outcome of World War II, an emergency resolved by political and other institutions.

Thus there are any number of threats, as there often are in film noir, but with science fiction we can worry more freely and for longer, perhaps, because in the end with science fiction we can rely on the state to have matters solved. This is not a film noir outlook. 

Gender-concealing lady is a scientist trope in Them! (1954)
Joan Weldon, James Arness and James Whitmore

One thing that Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955) have in common is that they both deploy an obligatory 'lady is a scientist' shock scene in which the males express variations of surprise, lustiness and humour when they discover that their colleague whom they previous assumed to be a male because of the designation 'Doctor' -- turns out to be a woman.

One of the tricks to deploying the 'lady is a scientist' trope is the clever notion of gender-concealing writing. Hence, the characters expect Dr. Pat Medford to be a Patrick, not a Patricia. Classic 1940s to 1980s gender-concealing writing works when an unseen character is referred to by gender-neutral nouns as well as most crucially of all, an honorific such as Doctor, or also nouns generally associated with one specific gender, causing the viewers to assume the character is male when they are actually female or vice versa.

The reveal that they are the opposite gender is generally treated as a surprise by the other characters, with the male leads mostly enjoying a good male to female gender concealment as a prelude to romance.  

The necessity of this trope is alarming and it speaks of resistance. The failure of the trope is best exemplified in the fact that it considers itself as an item of script-writing to be progressive.

The failure is compounded by the fact that these woman scientists have not found immunity from the gaze and the casual flirting by moving into STEM. In Them! (1954) as Doctor Medford emerges legs first from an aeroplane, an excellent workplace lusting situation is created whereby the male hero watches the woman scientist emerge from a vantage point.

As she exits from beneath the plane — the only plane in the whole of 1950s cinema not to have an available set of airstairs or passenger boarding stairs —  Doctor Medford's skirt gets caught on a ladder, putting her legs on display for a few seconds. A crewman offers assistance, but she scruples and resists this offer.

James Arness in Them! (1954)

In Tarantula (1955) the effect is more traditional. If she has heard it once, postgraduate research student Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday) is also revealed to be a woman, with equally predictable consequences. Throughout, as if unable to entirely fir into the male world of science, Stephanie Clayton is called 'Steve', almost in a 'would it help if we gave you a men's name' type of set up.

Them! (1954) and the case of the gender-concealment of Dr. Pat Medford, whom all the characters expect to be a male entomologist, presumably named Patrick, instead of the female entomologist named Patricia, was a film with enough influence that a great many science fiction films of the day featured female scientist characters with male or androgynous names — Steve of Tarantula (1955) being the most immediate example to hand. 

Joan Weldon in Them! (1954)

Sometimes in the same era, these female scientist characters had male or androgynous names even when there wasn't any actual misdirection — suggestive of another appreciated eroticism — a woman can be even more attractive to a man — or certain men at least — if she either has a male name or if he thought she was a man to begin with.  

What do They! / Them! represent?

Them! (1954) queries both the Red Scare and the nuclear threat motifs, somehow simultaneously occupying both camps. The high regard this prime example of 1950s monster fun is held in has to be something to do with these additionally neat layers of paranoia.

Them! was Warner Bros. highest grossing film of 1954 and like the majority of the monster bug and mutated homicidal entity genre, the ants which feature are the awful and deranged product of the nuclear testing ranges of New Mexico, where long-term exposure to residual radiation has made them gargantuan. 

After messing up the rural southwest, the ants move to the storm sewers of Los Angeles, where infantrymen battled against them with flame throwers. It was very likely the fun aspect of these encounters which stimulated an appetite for giant bug films, as well as the spectacle of the special effects promised.

The Deadly Mantis (1957) and The Black Scorpion (1957) continued this trend in formulaic fashion while others such as Beginning of the End (1957) fared even worse. In Beginning of the End an agricultural scientist, played by Peter Graves, successfully grows gigantic vegetables using radiation.

As did the mighty Tarantula (1955) which similarly featured a mutant lab spider on the loose, requiring mass panic across the desert communities in its path. 

Unfortunately, the vegetables are eaten by locusts which quickly grow to a gigantic size and attack the nearby city of Chicago. Beginning of the End is generally known for its risible special effects, "and yet," writes reviewer Bill Warren, "there is something almost compellingly watchable about this goofy little movie". 

As well as these swarms of school-bus-sized locusts converging on on Chicago, wasps are rendered monstrous by cosmic rays in 1958's The Monster from Green Hell. The same year, a giant black widow tore into the unsuspecting teenagers of River Falls, U.S.A. in Earth vs. the Spider

Police Sgt. Ben Peterson: [appraising the ruination of a trailer] This wasn't caved in, it was caved out.

Other films, like The Fly (1958) and Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman (1959) suggest the grotesque fusion of humans and insects in improbable but massively exciting ways. 

The fun begins in asking to what extent these insect allegories symbolise the political and social tensions of the 1950s — when America's GDP was equal to an entire half of the GDP of the Planet Earth.

There is no doubt at all that Them! (1954) is about nuclear fear more than it is about anything else. It isn't even as straightforward as the simple idea of nuclear annihilation. It was Susan Sontag that said that these mutated bugs serve to both express, the fear of nuclear war as much as they do distract us from it. Her summary of the situation is a superb summary not just of the nuclear threat but of film noir in total:

For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.

The monster as such has something in common with the film noir psychopath and the life of the criminal — this is what we have done, socially, scientifically, this is where we are at and what we've managed to do.

The fact that monster bug mutants are in general the product of the daily nuclear threat would seem to back up the idea that these self same arachnids and bugs are symbolic of nuclear fear — but it need not be that way. The nuclear aspect could be nothing more than a handy plot device. In the 1940s after all, hypnotism could do nearly about anything in film noir — try Whirlpool (1949) to see the extent of the marvels of hypnotism. 

In short, radiation was a menace. A little like Communism.

This leads to the school of thought expressive of the notion that Them! (1954) as the highest common exemplar of the mutant bug genre of the 1950s is typical of its style in that it's real and underlying truth concerns the evils of Communism.

Who are the real bugsI? Mass media in Them! (1954)

Then theory is that common household pests being transformed into ruthless hoards of faceless predators underlies something specific to the 1950s fear of Communism — plus there combines with that the idea ant colony in Them! and films like it, represents Communism in that it depicts a ravenous collectivist and aggressive body of obedient drones, all of which need to be eradicated to save the American way of life.

However do note, that unlike film noir which does not tend to come with origin myths, the great monster bug movies of the 1950s all emerged from ideas around science and the place of science and the military in civilian life. In all cases, it is science which produces these fiends, and usually it is science that dispatches them too. 

This means that unlike in film noir 1950s science fiction demonised its base subject matter, science while simultaneously championing it. These monsters were usually created by the irresponsible experimentation of stereotypical mad scientists, and yet order is restored thanks to much more socially responsible scientists and their usual technology, be it oscilloscopes, napalm, or sometimes even obscure secret weapons.

James Whitmore in Them! (1954)

Public morality often plays out in film noir, as too in 1950s science fiction. Morality, perhaps thank to the Production Code, is something that comes already packaged, and sometimes even worked out in front of the viewers in principled questioning of integrity:

City official: Now Dr. Medford, since time is of the utmost importance, I recommend we pour gasoline into those drains and light it. That'll burn out anything that's in there and we still be able to control the fires. There will be little or no property damage above the street. Any ants that get through, the troops can take care of them.

Graham: You can't do that, not yet. Not till we find out for sure if those two kids are in there.

City official: You think there's a chance they're still alive? Are we supposed to jeopardize the lives of all the people of this city for the sake of two children who in all probability are already dead?

Graham: Why don't you ask their mother that question, mister.

Peterson: Yeah, she's standing right over there.

City official: Yeah, I see what you mean.

The ants are for sure dangerous, but Dr. Medford's prediction that they could drive humanity to extinction seems to be taking things a little too far. First of all, pistol-calibre rounds are shown to kill them and in an all-out conflict there'd definitely be heavy human losses, but with the advantages of explosives, air support, and superior numbers, we'd kill them faster than they could generate, especially once we'd found their queens.

This is a fairly normal reaction in 1950s science fiction which catastrophises quickly, as well as offers a healthy dose of monster delay — much of the early action only shows the aftermath of the ants' attacks. We see the damage they have caused and a few bodies, one of which is filled with acid and chewed to bits — all of which contributes to their menace before we see them first on screen.

when the authorities go public; before beginning their announcement, they introduce a tableful of generals and scientists to support the statement that's about to be made, so the public will believe it.

With giant insects in particular, but also applicable to any science fiction monster, we are entering the world of Freud, because such things, as well as being creatures of the night, or creatures of crazy nuclear science, are still at once creatures of the id. 

The dominating factor in these interpretations is the fact that the monsters are first so large, and second the fact that they are unleashed. Thus as erotic representatives of the concealed mind, the giant insects rampaging across the 1950s are mobilised to express sexual anxieties — writ large — writ rampant.

The interest in female scientists in the various insect films under discussion might seem to lean into this, as well as a more general interest in gender, with the queen bees and queen ants and ovulating anthropoids of the movies brought to bear.

Most generally it might be said that Them! and its 1950s counterparts are simply about the possibility of The Other — that which is not us. Race readings and gender readings can be found, and the insects can be simply stand-ins for nature, in an effort to chronicle further our collective battle with it. Most simply, the bug movies might have expressed concerns about insect infestation, are about cleanliness, another great theme of the 1950s. 

Them! (1954) is part crime story, part sci-fi, part horror, and is the film that pretty much started off the giant bug genre and hatched countless imitators, none of which are as good as it. It contains a supreme amount of everything, including comedy. 

Edmund Gwenn and a brave underground anti-ant raiding troupe in Them! (1954)

Favourite comic moments include, Olin Howlin, the guy in the drunk tank who sings "Make me a sergeant in charge of the booze!", as well as Dub Taylor playing a railroad detective suspected of stealing a load of sugar from a railroad car that the ants have actually made off with.

"You think I stole that sugar? When was the last time you busted a ring of sugar thieves? You ever heard of a market for hot sugar?"

There is one more enjoyable scene in the drunk ward too where a patient looks at the army major accompanying Arness and Whitmore and says, "I wanna get out of here, general, but I ain't gonna join the army to do it!" 

Them! was also one of the first non-film noir movies to deal with our fears of the atomic age and the effects of nuclear arms on nature. One of the great final bonuses of this nuclear invasion was that past horror films, which included vampires and werewolves, began look tame in comparison by opening up a whole new horizon of horrific possibilities. 

Robert Graham: Pat, if these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?

Dr. Patricia 'Pat' Medford: I don't know.

Dr. Harold Medford: Nobody knows, Robert. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we'll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.

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