Warner Brothers announced a remake of the science-fiction classic, THEM! The 1954 movie about giant mutant ants was a critical and commercial success, and remains one of the most influential science-fiction films of all time. The new feature will be helmed by first-time movie director Michael Giacchino, better known for his rousing soundtracks of Rogue One, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and The Incredibles. Giacchino made his directorial debut with the 2021 Marvel Cinematic Universe Werewolf by Night Halloween feature. He paid homage to the horror movies of the 1940s by filming the special in black and white and utilizing practical special effects. We shall see if he demonstrates the same respect and care for THEM!
Today’s audience may think of 1950s sci-fi as low budget, campy romps, as portrayed in Matinee. The 1993 film took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis in Key West, Florida, and involved producer Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) preparing to premiere his latest film, Mant! about a half-man, half-ant run amok. Woolsey was based on the real life William Castle, who created such B-movie classics as House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), and 13 Ghosts (1960). Although many such films followed in its ant-shaped footsteps, THEM! had high production values and talent, and remains enjoyable viewing today.
Investigating a series of mysterious missing person events in New Mexico reveals the existence of giant ants, mutants spawned from the early atomic bomb tests. It is a race against time for a team of scientists and military to find and destroy the killer ants before they escape the desert and threaten humanity with destruction.
Creators of THEM!
Ted Sherdeman and Russel S Hughes wrote the screenplay for THEM! from a treatment by George Worthing Yates. Sherdeman wrote Scandal Sheet (1951) and The Big Show (1953) before delving into science-fiction. His career spanned movies and television, including episodes of “Wagon Train”, “My Favorite Martian”, and My Side of the Mountain (1969) and Latitude Zero (1969).
Warner Brothers greenlit a budget of approximately $750,000, making it a medium-high budget film in 1953. Effects veteran Ralph Ayres lead the special effects team responsible for bringing the giant ants to life. Ayres began his film career in the 1930s as a matte painter until moving into visual effects. His innovative use of life-size models, puppetry, and rear projection on THEM! elevated the movie. The teams’ success is apparent when a ship’s crew fights a losing battle against the ants. Following Them!, Ayres worked on the World War II films Up Periscope (1959) and Merrill’s Marauders (1969), and Sam Peckinpah‘s landmark Wild West tale, The Wild Bunch (1969).
Gordon Douglas directed THEM! Douglas came from a comedy background and even worked with Laurel and Hardy. His directing portfolio went on to include Stagecoach (1966), In Like Flint (1969), and They Call Me Mister Tibbs (1970).
The Principal Cast
The talented actors charged with saving the world from THEM! were (in order of appearance):
James Whitmore [Police Sgt. Ben Peterson] Whitmore was a prolific actor appearing in over 160 features, including The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Planet of the Apes (1968), and The Shawshank Redemption (1994).
James Arness [FBI Agent Robert Graham] Arness already made his mark in classic science fiction in the role of the alien invader in The Thing From Another World (1951), but is best remembered as Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke” (1955-1975), and Zeb Macahan in “How the West Was Won” (1976-1979).
Joan Weldon [Dr. Patricia Medford] Weldon was a singer and member of the San Francisco Opera Company when she was discovered by Warner Brothers, and starred in western and crime dramas before being cast in THEM!. Weldon continued to perform at the Hollywood Bowl between making films.
Edmund Gwenn [Dr. Harold Medford] Edmund Gwenn made his first appearance on the English stage in 1895 and remained popular throughout the decades. His definitive portrayal of Santa Claus in the original Miracle on 34th Street (1947) earned him an Oscar. He also starred in Pride and Prejudice (1940), Of Human Bondage (1946), and The Trouble with Harry (1955).
Olin Howland [Jensen] Howland‘s career began in the silent movies of the 1920s and he continued working until his passing. He often played small supporting roles, including in Gone With The Wind (1939), Bombers B-52 (1955), and another sci-fi classic, The Blob (1958).
Leonard Nimoy [Army Sergeant in Information Center] Nimoy played many bit and often uncredited parts in his early days, long before stepping into the ears of Mr. Spock, including a Sergeant granted a few lines in THEM!
Douglas Spencer [Bit Part] Spencer was another actor from The Thing from Another World (1951). In THEM! he played a reporter in a real “blink and you’ll miss it” scene. His question, “Why a special conference at five o’clock on a Sunday?” wasn’t nearly as impactful as his end scene declaration “Watch the skies!” in The Thing.
Structuring a Classic
THEM! continues to endear itself because of the grounded approach Gordon Douglas brought to the subject matter. Other than being insects of unusual size, the mutant ants behaved like regular ants. The menace posed by their powerful mandibles and acid stinger was frightening enough. Likewise, soldiers faced off with guns, grenades, and a little poison gas and a few flame throwers for good measure. Douglas unfolded the story like a police thriller.
The movie begins with Sgt. Peterson (Whitmore) finding a young girl in the desert. She is mute with shock and her family is missing. The mystery deepens when a local store owner is found murdered. The only clues are the destruction and a strange foot print in the sand. Agent Graham (Arness) joins the case when the girl’s father is identified as a vacationing FBI agent. When the FBI cannot identify a mold of the foot print, they send it to the Department of Agriculture. Dr.’s Patricia (Weldon), “Pat”, and Harold Medford (Gwenn) arrive shortly thereafter.
Peterson and Graham are both likeable and believable characters. Peterson is appropriately shaken by his partner’s disappearance. The two men share a moment of light banter seeing Pat the first time. Although Graham is the hero, Peterson stands on equal footing, demonstrating exceptional courage rescuing two children from the ants.
Dr. Harold Medford’s role as the authority on ants served the audience as well as the other characters. When the first giant ant was killed, he explained how they communicate, scout, and kill. After the nest was discovered, Dr. Medford used a poster to showcase the intricate structure of the nest, the challenge in killing them all before they dig out, and the need to examine the egg chamber. When it was discovered several queen ants did escape and one established a colony under LA, he narrated a film to a room of military brass on ant reproduction and ability to wage war. With every major plot point, the viewer received the same briefing as the decision makers, to fully understand the evolving threat and reasoning behind proposed countermeasures.
Presenting the New Woman
Dr. Patricia Medford was featured well as an educated woman in 1954. She was confident, knowledgeable, and professional. When Graham tried to exclude her from going into the nest because she was a woman, she told him why she needed to go, why he can’t do it without her, and then went into the nest. This was no damsel in distress. The movie spanned months but there were no forced signs of a romance between them. Near the end of the movie, Pat touched Graham’s injured arm and their eyes momentarily locked. It was an effective indication that feelings were present and strong.
THEM! was not a low budget, cheesy B-movie, thrown together to get something in front of a Saturday matinee audience. It was a created by a team of talented creators and rightly earned recognition as a classic and commercial success. The movie earned $2.23 million at the box office ($23.3 million in adjusted 2023 dollars). It has aged over the past seventy years, but the black and white, practical effects, and no CGI only enhances its appeal. Find it on streaming or pick up it up DVD and watch it. If you already love THEM!, watch it again.
THEM! not only created the giant mutant monster genre, it remains one of the best examples of its potential.