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In one of the most intriguing openings in science fiction cinema, a little girl, wandering across the desert in a state of deep shock, is spotted by two New Mexico highway troopers who take her to safety. Nearby, they discover a trailer home that has been partially demolished by some unknown force and inside there is evidence of a bloody struggle. Later, when one of the police officers is gathering evidence at another site of destruction (a ransacked country store), he hears a strange, high pitched sound coming closer and closer until he's confronted with the horrifying source - the last thing he will ever see. Meanwhile, doctors try to jolt the little girl out of her catatonic state, finally succeeding with a formic acid sample, similar to traces found at the crime scene. The child becomes wildly agitated upon smelling the odor, screaming, "THEM! - THEM!", hence the title of the film which means GIANT ANTS!
A precursor to all the giant insect movies of the fifties, Them! (1954) was also one of the first science fiction thrillers to issue a warning about the dangers of nuclear testing and radioactivity in the aftermath of the atomic bomb's creation. The film is truly unique in its conception - the first half is constructed like a detective thriller, the second half works as a fantasy adventure with the army and FBI agents invading the storm drains beneath Los Angeles where they hope to locate and destroy the queen ant's nest. Them! also has a welcome sense of humor that sometimes emerges during unexpected but appropriate moments, such as the sequence with the airline pilot (Fess Parker) who is being held for observation at a Brownsville, Texas, mental institution (No one believes his eyewitness account of the mutant ants). These comic touches are not surprising in light of director Gordon Douglas' earlier career: he got his start working for producer Hal Roach, directing Our Gang comedy shorts and Laurel and Hardy features like Saps at Sea (1940). And when Douglas first read the script for Them!, he thought it would make an ideal vehicle for Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin! Luckily, Douglas didn't treat the film as a farce once production began and directed the film in the same terse, fast-paced style of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) and I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), two first-rate crime thrillers he previously directed for Warner Brothers.
But if anyone deserves credit for the film's success, it's Ted Sherdeman, a former staff producer at Warner Bros. who was instrumental in developing the project. First, he commissioned the original story from George Worthing Yates, which appeared as a diary account about giant ants nesting in the New York subway. Sherdeman later told Steve Rubin of Cinefantastique magazine that "the idea appealed to me very much because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world who plan and wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time." Yates was also hired to write the screenplay but his version proved to be cost prohibitive since it would have required far too many special effects sequences. Russell Hughes, a contract writer for Warners, was brought in for a rewrite and it was he who fashioned the narrative as a detective story that transitions into a chase thriller in the second half, culminating in a climax at the Santa Monica pier. Unfortunately, Hughes died prematurely from a heart attack, completing only 20 pages of the script, but Sherdeman, undaunted, completed the screenplay himself, though he was forced to change the ending. The cost of renting the Santa Monica pier for one day was too expensive so the storm drains below Los Angeles became the setting for the film's finale. This was actually a much better choice since the dank tunnels provided a much more eerie and claustrophobic atmosphere.
Sherdeman's next hurdle after the scripting was convincing his superiors to produce the movie. He tried to generate interest with drawings and a beautifully shot 16mm film about ants made by two UCLA entomologists (their footage would later be developed into a film for Walt Disney - The Living Desert, 1953). He even went to the trouble of having art designer Larry Meiggs create a three-foot ant head with movable antennae and mandibles which convinced WB executive Steve Trilling to shoot a film test. When studio mogul Jack L. Warner, who wasn't interested in making giant ant movies, saw the test footage, he knew he could sell the idea to a rival studio and offered it to 20th-Century-Fox.
Sherdeman's cherished project almost ended there and would have if he hadn't convinced WB producer Walter McCuhan that the studio was making a big mistake. When McCuhan found out how much Fox was willing to pay for the story, he suddenly realized the commercial potential of Them! and finally got Warner Brothers to back the project. The studio left the casting up to Sherdeman though they initially opposed his choice of Edmund Gwenn for the role of Dr. Harold Medford (they thought he was too old for the part!). But Sherdeman held firm and cast the film with a wonderful group of character actors including James Whitmore as the ill-fated Sgt. Peterson, James Arness as FBI agent Robert Graham, singer Joan Weldon as Dr. Patricia Medford and, in minor roles, Onslow Stevens, Leonard Nimoy, Dub Taylor, William Schallert, Olin Howlin as a wino (he later played the first victim of The Blob, 1958), and most memorably, Fess Parker.
As for the actual filming of Them!, Cinefantastique correspondent Steve Rubin wrote that "Two main ants were constructed, one fully, the other minus the hindquarters and mounted on a boom for mobility. Behind this, a whole crew, mounted on a dolly, manipulated the various knobs and levers that made the mechanical model come alive. Douglas laughed: "You would have a shot where an ant comes into the picture and if you glanced back behind the creature you would see about 20 guys, all sweating like hell!" A number of "extra" ants were also constructed for scenes where large numbers of the creatures appeared, but where mobility was not essential. These ant models were equipped only with heads and antenna that would be activated by the force from the wind-machines used to whip up the sand storms required on the desert locations."
Them! had originally been conceived as a 3-D feature in color and the giant ants were given a purplish shade of green; their eyes were a soapy looking mixture of reds and blues that changed shades constantly and made them appear to be alive. Unfortunately, these effects were lost when Warner Brothers decided to release the film in black and white without the 3-D effect to save costs. Nevertheless, the film still proved to be enormously successful when released, becoming one of the studio's top grossing films of the year and even receiving favorable reviews from critics who usually dismissed horror and sci-fi films. The New York Times review proclaimed Them! "one ominous view of a terrifyingly new world" and that "it is definitely a chiller....fascinating to watch." Jack Warner remained unconvinced, however, and told his staff after a screening, "Anyone who wants to make any more ant pictures will go to Republic!" Obviously, the studio mogul was a poor judge of science fiction films for Them! is among the best, a cautionary tale about the dangers of the atom bomb and a frightening view of nature run amok.
Producer: David Weisbart
Director: Gordon M. Douglas
Screenplay: Russell S. Hughes, Ted Sherdeman, George Worthing Yates (story)
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Costume Design: Edith Head, Moss Mabry
Film Editing: Thomas Reilly
Original Music: Bronislau Kaper
Visual Effects: Dick Smith
Cast: James Whitmore (Sgt. Ben Peterson), Edmund Gwenn (Dr. Harold Medford), Joan Weldon (Dr. Patricia Medford), James Arness (Robert Graham), Onslow Stevens (Brigadier General Robert O'Brien), Sean McClory (Major Kibbee), Fess Parker (Alan Crotty), Sandy Drescher (the Ellinson Girl), Olin Howlin (Jensen).
By Jeff Stafford