Them!, released in 1954, was the first of the “giant insect” movies that became so popular during the 1950s. It’s not only the first, it’s the best, and, I would argue, one of the best sci-fi horror films of the 1950s.
The story opens with two cops, Ben (James Whitmore) and Ed (Chris Drake) discovering a little girl wandering the desert all by herself. She is in a state of complete shock. They find a car and trailer that apparently belonged to the girl’s family, and are shocked to see the destruction that does not seem to be human-made. A few miles away, they find similar destruction at a small store, including the mangled body of the proprietor.
Ben leaves Ed at the store to get more help. Ed is attacked by something off screen and is also killed.
An unidentifiable footprint is found at one of the crime scenes and a cast is sent by FBI agent Bob Graham (James Arness) to Washington. The police and Bob are surprised when two Dr. Medfords are sent out to the desert to investigate. One is Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), and the other, to the surprise of the men, is Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon), his daughter.
They visit the little comatose girl. Dr. Medford allows her to sniff formic acid, which not only brings her out of her state, she becomes completely terrified, yelling “Them! Them!”
Out in the desert, the two scientists are cagey about their theory of what has been killing these people. While alone looking for more of the tracks, Pat is almost attacked and killed by a monstrous-sized ant. Ben and Bob kill the giant ant.
The two scientists reveal that the most likely explanation for these giant ants is radiation left from the testing of the atomic bomb in nearby White Sands, causing this fantastic mutation.
Drs. Harold and Patricia, Bob, and Ben, along with military personnel, including General O’Brien (Onslow Stevens) and Major Kibbee (Sean McClory) join forces to destroy the nest in the desert. They are appalled to discover that two queen ant escaped before the nest was destroyed. They set out to find where the other queens have established their nests before the giant ants can multiply to the point where they will wipe out all of mankind.
There is so much to love about this movie, first of all its well-paced, suspenseful script. Much like the movie Jaws two decades later, the movie is very careful not to reveal the creatures until absolutely necessary. It also has surprising moments of humor, while always taking its subject totally seriously. It is populated with appearances by a wide host of some of the best character actors in Hollywood at the time, including Dub Taylor, Richard Deacon, Fess Parker, William Schallert, Ann Doran, John Beradino, and Harry Wilson.
(Fun trivia: Walt Disney saw the film to consider James Arness for the part of Davy Crockett and decided Fess Parker was more suitable for the role. Arness didn’t lose out, though: based on his performance in the film, John Wayne recommended him for the role of Matt Dillon in the show Gunsmoke.)
Edmund Gwenn plays the familiar role of the curmudgeonly, somewhat absent-minded scientist to utter perfection. Both excited by the remarkable scientific event and determined to curtail its threat, he is in many ways the model of the “good” scientist from movies.
While he is familiar, the other scientist in the story, Pat, is not. It was unusual for women to play major roles as scientists in classic Hollywood films, unless it was in a biopic. This is one reason I love the film so much.
Of course, when they introduce her they felt the need to sexualize her by having her skirt catch as she climbs out of the army plane so we see only her legs at first, to the delight of Bob and Ben. And, sure, she needs to be rescued from one of the giant ants. Because, you know, that’s how women usually function in a story.
However, after getting those two stale tropes out of the way, the film quickly establishes her as not only a superb scientist, on equal footing with her father, but a pretty bad-ass one, too. When they find the first ant colony and gas it with poison, she insists on accompanying Bob and Ben to make certain the entire colony has been destroyed. Bob, who has already laid claim to her as his possible woman, makes manly noises about her staying behind, but she refuses to be left behind, pulling out her scientist credentials, which he can’t argue against.
When they arrive at the queen’s egg chamber and Pat informs them she has found evidence that is very bad for the longevity of the human race, she commands them:
“Now destroy everything in here. Burn it.”
Clueless men: “What?”
“BURN IT! BURN EVERYTHING!”
She remains a major presence throughout the rest of the film, investigating giant ant sightings, speaking in front of leaders in Washington with her father, and riding into the underground sewer lines along with soldiers to find the final ant nest.
Sure, the guys get to battle the ants at the end and earn the hero mantle for saving the world. And I don’t mean to give short shrift to Gwenn’s Dr. Medford. He is an important presence, too, teaching us to respect the power of nature and warning us of our folly for thinking our actions won’t have serious consequences. But to see a woman treated as an equal to the other heroes in a movie made during the 1950s is awesome.
What’s also great about this movie is that it’s about a team of heroes—along with our two intrepid scientists, there is local cop Ben, FBI agent Bob, a general and major in the army. Without any of them, the world would not have been saved. It’s a nice change from the lone wolf hero we’re so used to in today’s movies. In Them!, brains, courage, and brawn come together to save our species.