When American forces dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was the beginning of a whole new era in terms of world history. For the next 50 years, the Cold War had the world in a chokehold thanks to the power that atomic and later nuclear weapons possessed. So who took advantage of this situation? Why the movie business of course. What did people really know about these new weapons and the effects they had? There's still a conspiracy theory that John Wayne died of cancer because he filmed several movies where atomic bombs were tested.
It's just that type of conspiracy that opens the door on 1954's Them!, a movie out of the big bug/animal subgenre that had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. Out in the deserts where these bombs were tested, what really happened? Directed by Gordon Douglas, this sci-fi classic plays on the emotions and worries of the time because right up there with the 3 C's (Chinese, Cubans, Commies), what was the biggest threat facing the United States? Big honking bugs and animals bent on destroying civilization as we know it.
Investigating some strange calls, police Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) drives out into the New Mexico to find out exactly what's going on. Along with his partner, Peterson finds crime scenes with no rational explanations, and the only evidence points to an unidentifiable print in the sand. Zoology experts (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon), along with some help from FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness), pick up where Peterson left up. The motley quartet find that the damage is being done by gigantic ants as big as 15 feet long. Keeping the news under wraps, they manage to destroy one nest of ants only to find out that two queen ants escaped and have headed west. Can our motley group of heroes save the day before mankind is destroyed?
In a word...yes. Did you really think the gigantic bugs were going to beat America? Come on now. This is a movie that definitely needs to be viewed with an awareness of when it was made. The perception that Russia or Cuba could attack at any minute was all around in the 1950s, and more than that, no one was quite sure the effects of the a-bombs or how much damage they really did. So here with the story, the a-bomb testing had a profound impact on nature, making normal desert ants into enormous killing machines. It sounds ridiculous -- especially writing the plot synopsis -- but because it is handled seriously without even a tiny bit of a sense of humor, the movie works.
This has all the necessary makings of an enjoyable B-movie, starting with the giant ants. Without the benefit of computerized special effects, the filmmakers had to create these giant killer ants so they'd appear frightening on-screen. Credit for originality if not a whole lot of scares just by appearance. Instead, they decided to have these ants make a shrill, high-pitched noise that surprisingly works a lot better than actually seeing them. The noises provide a strong sense of foreboding, and that something mysterious and unknown is lurking out of sight (like Cubans or Russians) waiting to attack when the opportunity arises.
Because the story is handled so seriously, 'Them!' is more of a genuine enjoyment movie opposed to a campy, so bad it's good movie. Always reliable character actors Whitmore and Arness (pre-Gunsmoke) lead the cast and make the most of an average script. Full-fledged, 3-D characters these are not, but with pros like Whitmore and Arness you don't even notice. They commit to their parts, and in doing so, help us commit to what could have been a ludicrous movie. Gwenn (Santa in Miracle on 34th Street) doesn't look well but is only expected to spout off lines about the dangerous ants with his daughter Weldon not making much of an impression. Also starring are Sean McClory as Major Kibbee, a pilot working on the project, Onslow Stevens as General O'Brien, the Army representative, and Fess Parker as Alan Crotty, a farmer who stumbles across these eastbound traveling giant ants.
If this makes any sense, the last 40 minutes plays like a chase scene you will have seen in any number of movies; cop, western, adventure. Except instead of chasing a crook, we're chasing two queen ants capable of producing thousands of eggs. The chase leads to the storm drains off the Los Angeles River with Douglas filming on locations used years later by Grease -- among many other movies. It's a solid finale as Widmore, Arness, and a lot of soldiers search the storm drains for signs of two children trapped somewhere in the ants nest. Don't expect greatness out of this one, and you'll almost certainly enjoy it. You can watch it starting here with Part 1 of 10 at Youtube.
Them!...<-----trailer (1954): ***/****