Years of Infamy

By Paige Francis Posted Tuesday Feb 20, 2024

Filed under: Epilogue, Paige Writes 4 comments

I have posited Gojira as the culmination, and arguably the pinnacle, of the giant monster movie genre for decades. While arguments can be made for various titles in the Twentieth Century, you really have to wait for the new millennium to see movies that credibly achieved the same effect as Gojira, but also upped the level of achievement or quality in some substantive way. And yet, there were dozens, if not hundreds of monster and giant monster movies through the 1950’s and 1960’s, even into the 1970’s. The movie that set the pattern for many of these, at least in America, was

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms began preproduction in 1951 and was released on June 13th, 1953. I can’t find the exact date, but around this time is when THEM! began preproduction. I can’t help but believe THEM! was conceived in light of the success AND perceived problems with Beast. Stop-motion animation was never considered for the titular giant monsters; mechanized puppets, many of which were created FULL SIZED, were the first item of production. In fact, one monster meant to be seen only from one side was mistakenly oriented so that the internal mechanicals showed briefly on screen. You can find this shot in older releases, but it was obscured starting with *a* DVD release; I have been unable to find a comprehensive history of THEM!‘s media releases. Smaller models and puppets were used for scenes where the puppeteers could not be hidden.

While everyone associates over-the-top forced perspective shots and plushie toys on sticks (with the sticks visible in shot) menacing the heroes with THEM!, the creature effects are actually very good, with some notable caveats. The ants’ (did I mention THEY! are giant ants? Did anyone not KNOW THEY! are giant ants? Spoiler Warning) antennae bounce and bob like overburdened lengths of steel wire wrapped in fibers, which, to be fair, they probably are. But everyone has seen ants, and most people probably picked that movement in particular as something that didn’t look right. The other major detriment to the FX, bizarrely, is that many shots with the ants and people LOOK like forced perspective, even though they AREN’T.

See? No matte lines. The lighting and shadows match up. This is NOT actually a forced perspective shot…or at least, it’s not NECESSARILY a forced perspective shot. There are two reasons for this, in my opinion. First, as most people probably picked up from the title screen, THEM! was originally meant to be filmed in 3D. Anaglyph, or Red and Blue 3D, of course. The first, and most important, footage tested was of the monsters. Nobody liked how the puppets looked in color. As with other early monster movies, black and white hid seams and mistakes. In fact, most scenes with the monsters took place at night, with an in-movie explanation for this necessity. The early desert scenes were filmed in daylight I suspect because of the early intention to use color, but even then daylight scenes WITH THE MONSTERS always occurred during driving sandstorms (night scenes were obligatorily windy as well.) Several shots were still filmed using the 3D framing…actors poke things toward the audience or the action is filmed using acute foreground/background perspective. The above early shot of a full-size ant was likely meant to utilize the 3D FX more than forced perspective. You can see the rock lying in front of the ant seems to be unnatural, even as the ant appears to be an actual part of the scene. The trick here would have been to show the rock with a smaller degree of color separation than the ant, thereby creating a layered effect. Not a GOOD one, I assure you…this rarely worked well.

Of course, the second reason for a shot ending up like this would be to hide the puppetry and mechanical interfaces, and I’m sure some of this is in the movie…I just bet THIS one was for 3D reasons.

The cast of THEM! featured one big star, a former big star, a handful of up-and-comers and a few contract players that never hit. James Whitmore came to the film from several starring roles, including a recent Academy Award. He was most noted for being the “affordable and easier-to-work-with” “Spencer Tracy (a noted lecher and prima donna.) His co-star in THEM!, James Arness, was a foot taller which necessitated Whitmore wear lifts in his shoes and exaggerate his movements to look bigger. Arness had put in nearly a decade of work in supporting roles and was months away from being recommended for the starring role in one of the longest-lasting American television shows in history. The requisite professor, this time in formicidae, was ably performed by Kris Kringle Edmund Gwenn, one of the last roles of his career. Joan Weldon was cast as the also requisite professor’s daughter/assistant/secretary/token woman. Weldon was an opera singer who appeared in only seven movies between 1953 and 1954, mostly for Warner Brothers. She went on to four more years in television before leaving acting. Probably the most interesting genesis among the cast involves The Walt Disney Company. Scouting for an actor for the title role in an upcoming Davy Crockett TV series, Disney reps stopped by the THEM! production to observe the tall and lanky Norwegian Arness. Instead, the scene on the docket was of a Texas pilot locked up in a mental hospital for claiming a giant flying ant caused him to crash his plane. The actor, Warner Brothers contract player Fess Parker, made an immediate impression on Disney staff, and they left before seeing Arness, confident they had found the right actor to portray the infamous woodsman. Under the category of “trivia,” look for an uncredited Leonard Nimoy as a Staff Sergeant collating news reports.

THEM! is probably about ten minutes longer than it needs to be, although it feels more like twenty minutes too long. One obvious culprit is the three-minute stock-footage documentary on ants narrated by the Professor at the fifty-minute mark. I’m sure it was included to try to reinforce the idea that ants-made-giant could actually be a world-ending threat, but it feels more like ten minutes long. And brings the movie to a grinding halt, at least for me. The other problem comes from the intentions of the story. THEM! is the first giant monster movie that tries EXPLICITLY to make the monster an extant threat to the entire world. Yet it is still tied to the more personal nature of early monster movies…that is to say, stopping a giant ant is actually quite easy with regular gunfire. THEM! tries to make the threat bigger while keeping the action centered on the highly personal. This isn’t actually a bad thing IN CONCEPT; when you get it right you can make a much more compelling movie because you have characters to connect with. But as people have repeatedly noted regarding the 2014 Legendary Godzilla, getting it wrong can create a disjointed film with a confused narrative.

The movie opens with Whitmore, a New Mexico State Policeman, and his partner, along with an airplane spotter, searching the desert to confirm a report of someone walking through the desert alone. They soon find an unnamed little girl in shock. They receive a report of a travel trailer sitting along the road a few miles away. The trailer has been caved in on one side, looking like it was attacked by an excavator. Paramedics and investigators are called in. While they are working on the crime scene, a high-pitched stridulation is heard. That’s straight out of the movie; it’s even in the subtitles. It’s a real thing, by the way. The traumatized girl responds to the sound by sitting up in the ambulance, then laying back down when the sound goes away. That night Whitmore and his partner arrive at Gramp’s roadside store (no reason is ever given) where they find the store similarly damaged and Gramps dead inside. Whitmore returns to the hospital while his partner stays until the ambulance arrives, but is soon killed off-screen when he goes to investigate the reappearance of the high-pitched stridulations.

Fingerprints from the travel trailer identify the owner as a vacationing FBI agent, which leads to the introduction of FBI agent Arness. THEM! continues to skip marginal explanations, as Arness is actually introduced in the next scene returning with Whitmore from searching the desert. They receive the autopsy report on Gramps, revealing his corpse contained incredible levels of formic acid. This leads to the introduction of Doctor Medford and his daughter Doctor Medford from the Federal Department of Agriculture. Now the cast is all assembled, and you can mark off “putting my leg up on something” on your MST3K bingo sheet.

I don’t know if this is the first monster movie that featured this trope. Mystery Science Theater 3000 first noted this behavior in The Giant Gila Monster. James Best’s The Killer Shrews made ample use of leg-propping action as well; both movies are from 1959. I remember there were several “teen crime/corrupt youth/evils of rock and roll” exploitation movies featuring the trope as well, but I haven’t been able to track a list down. So, possibly a moment for the history books.

You have a fair amount of “woman have big brain? Nonsense, get me a coffee” while the two doctors formulate their theory. It’s giant ants, but they’re not willing to say it’s giant ants just yet. An important part of the doctor’s testing is the big “name drop” moment of the movie, which just doesn’t work me. The elder Doctor Medford holds a finger of pure formic acid under the nose of the traumatized FBI agent’s daughter. After a few sniffs, she leaps out of the chair and cowers in a corner, screaming THEM! THEM! THEM! Now, here’s the thing. That makes no sense. Even if your first instinct upon being reminded of a recent attack by giant ants while still suffering PTSD is to identify the culprit, you would scream ANTS! or MONSTERS! or THOSE! Or much more likely you would just scream your fool head off without any particular enunciation. This is just stupid gimmick move, and again probably tied to the 3D framing as the young actress, Sandy Descher, stares straight at the camera while a hand presents the shot class of acid from the left. When she starts screaming, she jumps toward the camera as the hand withdraws. The most frustrating part of this debacle as that, especially later in the movie as the threat grows, the swarms of ants are quite naturally referred to as “them,” and the menacing tone is perfectly natural. Because we need to find THEM!, and stop THEM! Unfortunately, another example of the filmmakers over-egging the basket unnecessarily, I think.

But don’t let the criticisms deter you. After searching the desert for giant ants resulting in the showdown shown the earlier screenshot, a subsequent air search reveals a nest littered by human bones (a fully assembled human rib cage falls from an ant’s mandibles and rolls toward the camera). The senior Doctor Medford postulates that the ants haven’t been spotted until recently because they only come out at night, because they hate the heat of the desert. This results in a plan to launch white phosphorous rockets at the nest to keep the ants confined. I mean…sure. Whatever. The Army (the Army showed up at some point) subsequently pumps cyanide gas into the nest to kill all the ants. Arness, Whitmore, and the younger Doctor; who are still in charge of this entire operation somehow, descend into the nest (the nest that’s been recently cooked by white phosphorous and filled with cyanide, but don’t worry they wear gas masks and gloves) to verify they killed everything.

Not gonna lie, the poorly-lit scene in the nest is one of the best in the movie, and some of the most effective cinematography. Sometimes you just have to let the darkness be. Doctor Medford’s discovery that new queens must have hatched before the nest was destroyed leads to the second half of the film. Because the ants could now be anywhere, the White House is notified and the Army begins searching for unusual occurrences across the country. Despite signs of ants even on ships crossing the ocean, the giant ants are eventually traced to Los Angeles. Here is where I return to the idea the filmmakers tried unnecessarily and detrimentally to make the plot bigger than it needed to be. While the possibility of THEM! being a worldwide problem is promoted repeatedly, all plot lines introduced in that direction are immediately resolved or eventually ignored, and in the end we’re still, essentially, in the Desert Southwest. This section of the film lasts a full twenty-something minutes, but only five or six minutes contribute rather than tread water for time or muddle the plot. After some investigation by FBI Agent Arness and New Mexico State Policeman Whitmore, the pair determine THEY! are nesting in the Los Angeles River. Now this…this was brilliant. And I think the writers KNEW it was a brilliant idea. In 1954, the Los Angeles River was *just* reaching the level of historical artifact mixed with legend that would proceed to define its existence going forward. Here is not the time and now is not the place to discuss, but I suggest reading up on the history of the Los Angeles River. Its place in cinema history would be cemented in 1974’s Chinatown, but the legend, supported by appearances such as this one in THEM!, directly led to that movie.

The scenes in the river and its various drainages (how much was real and how much was a different location or set, I couldn’t tell you) are fabulous. Likewise, the penultimate scene featuring James Whitmore attacking a giant ant with a flamethrower is wonderfully effective. Arness rescues Whitmore from another ant, the egg chamber is located and burned.

One of the more important contributions THEM! made to monster movies in general, and American atomic-age monster movies especially, is a re-characterization of the The Professor/The Doctor/The Scientist. Doctor Medford performs three important tasks in the movie: he serves as the source for the specialized knowledge needed to understand the monster, he serves as a roadblock or foil to the hero (relatively minor in THEM!, compared to future Professors,) and he provides comic relief. Not every character filling this archetype will do all three, but you do increasingly see all of these elements appear. Again, especially in western movies…Japanese monster movies usually had a comic character in their own role. The notable comic scene from THEM! revolves around Doctor Medford being confounded by the “rules” of how to talk to someone over a two-way radio. It adds nothing but run-time and does little to enhance what is otherwise treated as a fairly serious movie. Like the earlier dialogue about women being scientists, the scene comes off as obligatory.

Just as with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, nuclear testing underlies the triggering events of the movie. But unlike that earlier film, Doctor Medford states in no uncertain terms that radiation from the White Sands nuclear bomb tests CAUSED the ants to grow to a giant size. However, that’s the ONLY thing caused by radiation. In fact, that’s really the point the documentary movie about ants supports…that their greatly enhanced natural characteristics are inherent to ant physiology. The threat is solely because they are big, the radiation has done its work and can no longer harm anyone. The giant ants are killed with fire and bullets; all you have to do is find them. The story is even comfortable directly endangering children at the climax of the story. The ants are presumed to be a POTENTIAL threat to anyone, but for some reason never seek out children despite their availability. (This isn’t entirely true…the little girl who survived the ant attack on the travel trailer is noted as having a sibling that is never found, along with her two parents. But that’s all off-screen.)

THEM! is the template American giant monster movies would follow for the most part; a couple have already been named. The makers of the 1956 Japanese movie Rodan would cite THEM! as an inspiration, although I’m not sure I see enough correlation to write about it. The odd part is that elements that were rejected for THEM! would feature prominently in the wave of Japanese giant monster movies…of the 1960’s. Most notably bright lighting and color, despite little effort to cover the deficiencies in creature FX that resulted. Don’t get me wrong, color was a necessity by the 1960’s; but almost no effort was made to make it look GOOD.

THEM! debuted in June of 1954. Budget information doesn’t seem to be available, but it is known to have grossed $2 million on its initial release, marking it as one of Warner Brothers’ top earners that year. The movie has gone on to be widely considered a giant monster *Science-Fiction* classic, something that was also introduced with THEM! that would generally characterize almost all giant monster movies of the atomic age.

Also in June of that year, filming was commencing on the soon-to-be King of all monster movies. In March Ishiro Honda had found the clinching element to his own giant monster story. The nuclear fundamentals of Godzilla had been in place for a while; after all, no one knew as much about the effects of an atomic bomb on a human population as the Japanese. But on March 1st, 1954, the United States started its second round of Bikini Atoll nuclear bomb tests, Operation Castle. The first detonation, designated Castle Bravo, was WILDLY successful. SO successful, in fact, that it yielded an explosion about 2.5 times more powerful than expected. And radiation from the explosion drifted a lot farther than expected. Directly onto the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon Five tuna fishing boat sailing out of Japan. The crew began experiencing symptoms of radiation exposure by the following evening. They were back in Japan on the 14th of March. The next day, older members of the crew were sent to Tokyo University Hospital. Tokyo University was able to determine the radiation exposure had come from a hydrogen bomb. This information spread through Japan rapidly. And while the United States maintained complete silence at the time about nuclear testing, most Pacific Rim nations either knew or believed the U.S. was testing in the Western Pacific.

(supplemental note: the controversy over whether the Daigo Fukuryu Maru had entered the testing area accidentally or against warnings; or the U.S. had failed to keep vessels out of the exposure area was rendered moot by the release of information detailing the unexepected size of the explosion and impacted area. This information also revealed indirectly that the U.S. patrolled for ships entering possible contact areas and forcibly diverted them. The Daigo Fukuryu Maru never entered radar range in any patrolled area. But more importantly, the few incidences of vessels being warned off by the U.S. was a big reason everyone suspected the U.S. was testing atomic bombs in the region.)

This event refocused Gojira from the dangers of the atomic bomb to the dangers of radiation. In this regard the movie delineates itself from the Western approach, which treated radiation as practically harmless, even beneficial. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was originally meant to have fire breath, according to some notes. This has been occasionally reported as “atomic breath,” but this doesn’t seem to flow from the original information. This feature was more likely originally intended to liken the rhedosaurus to a dragon, and soon dropped both because the effect would be difficult and probably silly-looking…AND because it made the beast look like a dragon, which is JUST fantasy, after all.

So. That was WAY too many words on THEM! Good movie. You should watch it.


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4 thoughts on “Years of Infamy

  1. Sleeping Dragon says:

    Honestly to my surprise the second last picture, the one with what I believe are car lights, looks properly creepy. Without the movement and being somewhat blurry the mind just fills the blanks for the insectile legs and shapes. The last one is pretty good as well even if it looks more like a Destiny boss monster than an insect.

    Speaking of the “beneficial radiation” when did the “we could use the monster for science/war/something” start coming up?

    1. The scenes in and around the Los Angeles River are remarkable. There are several shots in this segment of the movie that show a lot of care in the setup. More than any other part of the movie, these scenes bear repeated viewing just to catch everything done. The ant-on-fire battle looks far better in motion that any screen grab…believe me, this is particular shot was probably my sixth attempt to show something *close* to what it looks like in the film.

      As far as I have ever been able to PROVE, Gojira is the first giant monster movie to state the monster should be studied rather than destroyed. HOWEVER, although I can’t find it, in the back of my mind is a memory of one of the earlier dinosaur stop-motion movies featuring a line like “it’s a pity we have to kill them, we could learn so much.”

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        Hmmm, I suppose I was thinking more in terms of at what point does the person who wants to study or use the monster become a malicious force (and for further clarification I mean more Umbrella Corp style, not when it’s aliens purposefuly sicking the monster on humanity), which shifts the conflict further towards humans. I will admit it’s been forever since I’ve seen the original Gojira or other movies of the period (and a bunch of them I’ve seen through MST3K so they might not have been fully representative of the best in the genre) but I feel like in the early movies there is the underlying amazement at the creature but generally humans who actively sabotage the efforst to destroy it or sacrifice innocents in the name of preserving it are rare.

        1. You know what? That’s a good question, and I don’t the answer. The second Legendary Godzilla movie definitely, but it’s certainly an older idea. The third Legendary movie features the villain behind Mecha-Godzilla having very similar motives as many previous vs. and Mecha- movies, going all the way back to King Kong Escapes (coming up soon) anyway.

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