The first of the big bug movies, this one about giant ants. Had I looked at the poster first, I might have been on the ants’ side. “A horror horde of crawl-and-crush giants,” the poster describes them. It’s a source of satisfaction to me that I was never one of those kids who delighted in crushing ants or burning them with a magnifying glass, or pulling the wings off flies. Not that I haven’t killed a few in my life — flies might tell stories about my deadliness with a rubber band, for all I know — but I don’t enjoy it, and it’s generally a last resort. But with these babies — in Them! — the last resort is really the best. They’re eight feet long and the buggers eat children. Even the scientist wants to wipe them out.
James Whitmore plays Ben, a police trooper who finds a young girl wandering the New Mexico desert in shock, unable to tell him what happened to her. Nearby, however, he finds a car and trailer, but no inhabitants, just a huge hole ripped out of the side of the trailer. And a very strange print in the sand.
These early scenes, continuing on through the first act and the introduction of an FBI man (James Whitmore) and a father-daughter tandem of scientists (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon), exude an atmosphere of mystery and menace that many movies, even today, aren’t able to achieve, despite the best efforts of the filmmakers. Evidently poorly reviewed in its original release, its rediscovery and current status as a science fiction classic must hinge, I believe, on what is accomplished early. Not that the rest of the movie isn’t any good; it simply isn’t as good.
Some of these old classics really put a dent in my theory that movies would be better if they were more realistic. War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, this movie, and others show (more or less) what would happen if monsters invaded. I mean, it wouldn’t be all about Dick and Jane; in fact, it would be a lot more about the cops, the FBI, the National Guard, and the military. But as I get older I find that I’m much more interested in Dick and Jane.
So, to me, one of the problems with Them! is that it squanders the romance that could have been, between Robert (the FBI guy) and Pat (the “daughter” half of the science team). The great thing — one of the great things — about The Thing (From Another World) is that it manages to have its cake and eat it, too. The romance there is between a military man and the secretary of the chief scientist. There’s all that sexual tension keeping things lively when the creature isn’t on the screen. Here, Robert gets all het up when he first sees Pat, who catches her skirt descending the steps of an airplane, and he becomes very protective of her later, but that’s about it; the relationship is never allowed to grow or contribute anything meaningful to the suspense.
On the other hand, it’s refreshing to find in Pat a no-nonsense scientist who is very good at what she does, and in her father, a man who treats her as a professional and an equal, even frequently referring to her as “doctor.”
And, as I said, it’s not as though the movie falls apart after a great beginning. Indeed, one of the best scenes occurs later. Fess Parker (later to become Daniel Boone on TV) plays a man locked up in a loony bin for telling crazy stories. The ants aren’t completely destroyed in New Mexico: a queen and a couple of winged males escape, flying east in search of a suitable place to start a new colony. That’s what they do. But the government wants to keep a lid on the story so nobody knows what transpired in the desert. Certainly not Parker, a pilot on his way to Brownsville, Texas, who encounters what he can only describe as three ant-shaped UFOs in the sky. His pleas first for someone to believe him then to be released are funny and poignant at the same time (and actually got him that TV gig).
And then there’s the ants themselves, which are very well done for their time, and which the filmmakers don’t mind showing, even in desert daylight. That’s a big plus.
I guess it comes down to this: the first part of Them! is a movie for everyone; most of the rest is a movie for science fiction fans. That’s not a bad thing at all, but it’s why I don’t love it as much as I might have.