Them is for many of us a piece of our
childhood, for others just a great little Sci-Fi
One of the great things about DVDs is that the studios do more than release the modern blockbusters, films in addition to the most notable classics. Recently, there have been several releases of those great little Sci-Fi flicks that I enjoyed as a child, the very films that began my life long enjoyment of movies. The early fifties where a time when America had just entered the atomic age, the use of the A-bomb in World War II, scientific investigation on the affects of radiation on living matter. This created the genre of giant insects created by radiation that rise up and attack. Perhaps the best of these films is Them !
As Them opens, state troopers investigate some strange events that have begun, a general store that is destroyed, shots where fired but there was no blood. Then a little girl in a catatonic state is found wandering in the desert. The only stimulus that can get a reaction from her is the smell of formaldehyde, a substance excreted by ants. An odd foot print is found and sent to Washington only to be identified as an ant, a really big ant. Police Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) is assigned the cast and is to work along side FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) and a father/daughter scientist team, elderly Dr. Harold Metford (Edmund Gwenn) and his beautiful, intelligent daughter Pat (Joan Weldon). The team tracks down the initial nest of giant ants only to find two winged queens have left to start nests somewhere else. What really make Them interesting is some of the more subtitle aspects many that reflect the fears and apprehensions of the time. One such aspect was the public view of science. While science had begun to make the life of most people easier there was a fear of the side effects of radiation. How this new, powerful force would affect nature. Even though science inadvertently created the menace it was at the ready to combat it and ensure our survival. In post WWII America there was also the reassurance that the United States military was always ready to protect us against any foe no matter how powerful. While the communist threat was just becoming a topic on everyone’s mind knowing the Army was able to protect us from monsters allowed us to be sure that they will keep us safe from the ‘Commies’. Lastly there was the changing role of women. During WWII women began to move out of the household and into the work place. The character of Doctor Pat Metford showed a strong woman, not only beautiful but intelligent, brave and willing to do everything required to stave off the menace.
Them had a first string cast. The elder doctor Metford was played by Edmund Gwen, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Kris Kringle in the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street. His career started in 1916 and he brings the experience of such a career to the table here. Gwen provides humor and the required scientific exposition. Weldon plays her role as an able young woman, a role model for the young girls that grew up in the fifties. There is strength to her performance, she shows that a woman can be attractive and still be a success in formerly male dominated roles. James Whitmore has proved himself on stage and screen over the many decades of his notable career. Here as a state trooper he nails the role. Here is an actor twice nominated for Oscars, winner of an Emmy playing opposite giant ants with the same dedication to his craft as if he was with the best actors around. For James Arness fighting giant insects seems to run in the family. His younger brother Peter Graves was in many 50’s Sci-Fi flicks including one fighting huge grasshoppers. Arness seems a little out of place at times but as with many films of this genre was able to bring a sort of western feel to some of the action. Speaking of westerns, look carefully for Fess Parker, TV’s Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in the hospital scene. The actors here took Them seriously and the quality of the film benefited in every way.
Gordon Douglas has directed some 95 films in his career, many westerns. This was typical of this time and genre. It was not uncommon for cast and crews for these Sci-Fi flicks to come from the world of Hollywood westerns. Like the cast, Douglas took the making of this film as a serious project. Rather that just making a Saturday morning fluff piece he set out to really create a film with merit that was able to tell a story reflecting the human condition, the fears and hopes that defined the times. Of course he had to contend with giant robotic ants. While the special effects created by Dick Smith palled in comparison to the CGI wonders of today they worked. I remember watching this film as a kid completely in awe of the ants. Douglas also knew how to get in touch with the emotions of the audience. In one memorable scene the little girl that survived an ant attack sits up in the ambulance when the sound of the ants is heard. No one sees her but the audience and the look on her face of complete terror provides a foreshadowing of what is to come. Some many directors today make bad movies. They seem to just want to get the paycheck. With Douglas we have a director that put everything into his films.
The Them DVD is pretty much bare bones with a montage of the creation of the ant models and some behind the scene footage. The video is full screen and there are sections that show the age of the source material. Personally I didn’t mind the occasional white spot; it just reminded me on watching Them on my old black and white TV. You shouldn’t buy Them for the technology but invest in it for the film itself. Warner Brothers is to be commended for preserving this classic film on DVD. The mono sound track was nicely remixed. It may be better to bypass the typical bitstream circuits and listen to Them through the Prologic theater mode, something that will help you feel that you are watching Them in one of the old classic theaters. In all, Them is a keeper. For many of us, Them is a piece of our childhood, for others just a great little Sci-Fi.Review by Doug MacLean of hometheaterinfo.com
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