Them (1954): Nuclear Monster Sci-Fi, Starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, and James Arness (Los Angeles)

One of the first “nuclear monster” sci-fi, Them was tautly directed by Gordon Douglas, starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, and James Arness.

Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes’ script, based on original story by George Worthing Yates, is a scary and shocking creature feature without being overtly sensational.

The Premise:

A nest of gigantic irradiated ants, discovered in the New Mexico desert, quickly become a national threat when it is discovered that two queen ants and their consorts have escaped to establish new nests. The national search culminates in a battle with Them in the concrete spillways and storm drain system of Los Angeles.

Detailed Synopsis

New Mexico State Police Sgt. Ben Peterson and Trooper Ed Blackburn discover a girl wandering the desert in a state of shock. They take her to a nearby vacation trailer, located by a spotter aircraft, where they find evidence that the girl had been there when it was attacked and nearly destroyed.

The trailer was owned by FBI Special Agent Ellinson, on vacation with his wife, son, and daughter, but the other members of the girl’s family are missing.

The FBI sends Special Agent Robert Graham to New Mexico to investigate. After a strange footprint is found near the Ellisons’ trailer, the Department of Agriculture sends myrmecologists Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, Dr. Pat Medford, to investigate.

The elder Medford exposes the Ellinson girl to formic acid fumes, which rips her from her catatonia into panic from “Them!”

At the Ellinson campsite, Pat encounters a giant, eight-foot-long foraging ant. Instructed by Medford, Peterson and Graham shoot off the ant’s antennae, blinding it, and kill it using a submachine gun. Medford reveals his theory: a colony of giant ants, mutated by radiation from the first atomic bomb test near Alamogordo, is responsible.

Peterson, Graham, and the Medfords join government task force which covertly begins to investigate reports of unusual activity.

Peterson finds the two missing boys alive, trapped by the ants, and lifts them to safety, just before being grabbed by an ant. Graham arrives with reinforcements and kills the ant, but Peterson dies from injuries.

In the ned, Graham and the soldiers fight off the ants, and the queen and her hatchlings are destroyed with flamethrowers.

Dr. Medford observes what is the message of this sci-fi: “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.”

By today’s standards, the first reel is too expository, and the built-up slow, but Them should be commended for a well-constructed plot that gets better as it goes along, and for avoiding self-parody.  Relying on heavy dialogue, the acting by a cast of secondary actors (lack of A-list stars is a plus) is matter-of-fact and reasonably logical.

Decades after it was made, Them has retained its power due to its attention to detail, and should be studied as a sampler of its era, a movie that continues to exert influence on its genre and on American pop culture.

James Whitmore as Sgt. Ben Peterson
Edmund Gwenn as Dr. Harold Medford
Joan Weldon as Dr. Pat Medford
James Arness as FBI Agent Robert Graham
Onslow Stevens as General O’Brien
Sean McClory as Major Kibbee
Chris Drake as Trooper Ed Blackburn
Sandy Descher as Ellinson girl
Mary Ann Hokanson as Mrs. Lodge
Don Shelton as Captain Fred Edwards