Vintage Movies: “Them!”

MAGNET contributing writer Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’20s through the ’80s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

Them! (1954, 92 minutes)

The 1950s was a golden age for science-fiction movies. The recent harnessing of atomic energy and the possibility of future space travel as scientists developed hardware to put a satellite into orbit opened up a galaxy of new scenarios. On a larger scale, there were films portraying the annihilation of Earth by invading alien armadas. On a more personal (and believable) level, truly frightening movies depicted the havoc caused by lingering radiation from atomic-fission. Them! was one of the best.

A two-seater airplane buzzes the New Mexico desert, searching for something. “We’re chasing the wind, Ben,” radios the pilot to a police car directly below. “The guy who called in that report must have been drinking his breakfast. Oh, wait a minute.” The pilot suddenly spots a little girl in pigtails, dressed in a plaid bathrobe and slippers, carrying a doll in one arm and walking through a wasteland of Joshua trees and ocatilla. “There’s a kid, maybe 50 yards off the road. I’ll keep circling her until you get here. And there’s a trailer and station wagon about two miles ahead of you. Maybe she’s from there.”

Sgt. Ben Peterson (played by Spencer Tracy look-alike James Whitmore) and his partner find the little girl, walking as if in a trance. Peterson rushes up to her and notices her doll is missing half of its ceramic head. “What’s your name, little girl?” he asks. “What are you doing here, honey?”

The police drive to the abandoned trailer and are shocked at what they find. Half the structure is destroyed. There’s cash lying on the floor alongside  a pistol with several rounds discharged. And there are sugar cubes strewn everywhere. “This wasn’t pushed in, it was pulled out,” says Peterson of the trailer. “Hey sarge, look at this,” says his partner, handing over the other half of the doll’s head. When the pair later discovers the mangled body of Gramps Johnson in the cellar of his general store, they believe it’s the work of a homicidal maniac.

The results of the coroner’s autopsy on Gramps are totally baffling. “He could have died in any of five ways,” says the doctor. “His neck and back were broken, his chest was crushed and his skull was fractured. And here’s one for Sherlock Holmes: He had enough formic acid in him to kill 20 men.”

The FBI dispatches special agent Bob Graham (James Arness, later to star in TV’s Gunsmoke) to investigate, along with two doctors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon), both expert entomologists, have an astounding theory about the possible mutation of giant ants from the nearby White Sands atomic testing site. And the fate of the entire world may well depend on their work.