Arguably the greatest giant bug movie of all time, Them! opens with a traumatized little girl (Sandy Descher) found wandering the desert. Investigating the ghost town from whence she came, compassionate cop Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) loses his partner (Chris Drake) to a mystery monster. Stoic F.B.I. guy Robert Graham (James Arness) latches onto the case because the kid’s slain father was a fellow agent, while a plaster cast of a peculiar imprint draws father-and-daughter science boffins, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn, a.k.a. Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon), from the Department of Agriculture.
Gutsy Pat is first to stumble onto the desert-dwelling giant ants, mutated by atomic bomb tests. The army scrambles quickly to flush out the nest, but a group of flying ants escape to found a fresh colony somewhere beneath Los Angeles - waiting to take over the entire city.
Although The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) kicked off the Fifties’ cycle of atomic monster movies, Them! stands as the genre’s first true classic. Warner Bros. originally intended to film in 3-D (hence the absence of optical effects in favour of surprisingly scary large-size puppets) and Technicolor, but studio head Jack Warner loathed the script and quashed that idea. The film subsequently became the studio’s biggest hit of 1954, proving Warner didn’t know jack.
Gordon Douglas was a capable, if workmanlike filmmaker as evidenced by his run of Frank Sinatra vehicles during the 1960s, although he could surprise with an occasional oddity like The Detective (1968) or Skullduggery (1970) and is at his most inspired with this brisk, exciting chiller. The build-up is eerily sustained as Whitmore’s dogged cop prowls the empty shacks amidst howling winds and scary noises twittering across the desert. The fog-filled tunnels where monsters lunge out of the shadows or are blasted with bazookas remain thrilling to this day and surely influenced James Cameron on Aliens (1986).
Aside from a sly and subtle reoccurring gag about the ants raiding sugar stores, the film admirably avoids camp. Instead, doddery Dr. Medford adds warm humour and humanity, while everyone else is a model of Fifties efficiency. The script walks a tightrope between ominous warnings about what further mutations could arise and celebrating square-jawed American heroism. Everybody agrees keeping quiet about the mutant menace is the best way to avoid widespread panic, as frazzled pilot Alan Crotty (Fess Parker - future star of Disney’s Davy Crockett) is temporarily confined to an insane asylum after sighting the ants. A few decades later such government action would be seen as deeply suspect.
While the script never explicitly questions the necessity of atomic testing, Them! remains a progressive film in other areas. Though Ben and Robert clock Pat’s legs as she steps out of an aeroplane, this ranks among the least sexist Fifties’ sci-fi and gives her a chance to display heroism. Just one year away from his five decade stint in TV’s Gunsmoke, James Arness is a towering, all-action hero while Whitmore musters grace notes of compassion, before the justly celebrated climax in the storm drains beneath Los Angeles, where flaming ants look spectacular and one hero makes a valiant sacrifice. Lookout for a young Leonard Nimoy as one of the soldiers.