Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Them! (1954)

Them! (1954) was produced by David Weisbart, directed by Gordon Douglas, and starred James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon and James Arness. The film is based on a story treatment by George Worthing Yates who is noted for such science fiction classics as It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958). The screenplay was written by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes. Sherdeman had served as a staff officer under Gen. MacArthur during World War II had strong reservations about atomic weapons. Sherdeman stated that he was so upset when he learned about the Hiroshima bomb that he threw up. He felt that Them! (1954) had two things going for it “everyone had seen ants and no one trusted the atomic bomb” he later explained.

By the 1950s the classic horror monsters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf man and the Mummy had begun to lose their box office punch. The classic monsters were now fare for Abbott and Costello comedies and late-night television. The studios needed something new to frighten their audiences. They had to only look as far as the newspaper headlines to find something that the American audience could relate to, the fear and anxiety of nuclear weapons. Less than a decade had passed since America had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan thus ending World War II. Most Americans at that time were either ignorant or grossly misinformed about the principles and dangers of atomic weapons, and the studios cashed in on this widespread anxiety.

Them! (1954) centers around a nest of gigantic radiated ants in the New Mexico. Despite its outlandish story line the film was taken very seriously by the production staff. Director Gordon Douglas stated we “weren’t trying to make a comic strip or be cute about it. We talked a great deal about the bombs the scientist were playing around with.”

When production started in the fall of 1953, the film was originally planned to be shot to be in 3-D and Warner Color. During pre-production, tests were to be shot in color and 3-D. A few color tests were shot of the large-scale ant models, but when it was time to shoot the 3-D test, Warner Bros' "All Media" 3-D camera rig malfunctioned and no footage could be filmed.

The gigantic ants were constructed and operated by a team of technicians supervised by Ralph Ayers. Two main ants were constructed, one a complete model of an ant the other
had no hindquarters and mounted on a boom which was mounted on a dolly. This ant was controlled by serious knobs and levers. For scenes requiring a large number of ants, models with only heads and antenna were used. Their movement was activated the wind-machines used to whip up the sand storms required on the desert locations.


Despite its budget limitations and cheap special-effects, at least by today’s standards, the film was well received when it was released on June 19, 1954. The New York Times noted " . . . from the moment James Whitmore, playing a New Mexico state trooper, discovers a six-year-old moppet wandering around the desert in a state of shock, to the time when the cause of that mental trauma is traced and destroyed, Them! is taut science-fiction."  Variety declared the Them! (1954)  was a "top-notch science fiction shocker. It has a well-plotted story, expertly directed and acted in a matter-of-fact style to rate a chiller payoff and thoroughly satisfy the fans of hackle-raising melodrama."

Walt Disney screened the movie because he was interested in casting James Arness as Davy Crockett, in Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color (TV Series). The role of Davy Crockett eventually went to his co-star in the film, Fess Parker, who played Alan Crotty. However in 1955, John Wayne who was a close personal friend of James Arness recommended him for the lead role of Matt Dillon in the upcoming TV series Gunsmoke. Contrary to urban legend, Wayne himself was never offered the role of Matt Dillon. Arness initially turned down the role, but Wayne eventually talked Arness into accepting the role of Marshal Matt Dillon. Dylan would later become an iconic figure in American television history.  Gunsmoke, the television series was on the air for twenty seasons and as to date the longest-running dramatic series in U.S. television history.

Another young and upcoming actor who would also become a television and movie icon appeared in the film. Leonard Nimoy known for his role as Mr. Spock in the Star Trek TV series and movies had a small, uncredited part as an Air Force sergeant.

Them! was one of the first of the of a long line of "nuclear monster" movies, and the first "big bug" film.  Surprisingly, the film was nominated for an Oscar for its Special Effects and won a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing. Them! was Warner Bros.' highest grossing film of 1954 and is now regarded as one of the best science-fiction films of the 1950s.


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