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Dr. Harold Medford: "None of the ants previously seen by man were more than an inch in length – most considerably under that size. But even the most minute of them have an instinct and talent for industry, social organization, and savagery that makes man look feeble by comparison."

The 50s are known for their giant monster movies, and Them! is largely considered to be one of the best of these films. I have to concur.

I’m going to get the negative about this film out of the way first, mostly because there isn’t much that is negative to begin with. As I mentioned in my review of Tarantula!, the ant models are not going to impress modern audiences. I’d argue that they aren’t terrible, but they are obviously models. The 50s sexism present here is always a negative, but this movie actually doesn’t have all that much beyond a snide joke from one of our male leads about the female lead, and a few other bits like her first reveal as she disembarks from a plane. And the last little bit of negativity is more of a presentation issue; if it wasn’t so obvious that the foe here are giant ants, between them being mentioned for years, the posters, and so on, the suspense it builds up before the reveal would be even better than it already is.

The film opens up quickly, and we’re introduced to one of main characters and his partner in the New Mexico State police, Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake), as they drive down a barren desert road in contact with a search plane that guides them from overhead. We soon find a young girl wandering the desert alone, and the mystery of her condition only grows as we follow our officers to scenes of destruction and mayhem at a trailer nearby. At one point, they are loading up the unfortunate girl into an ambulance and pause as a strange sound is heard at the scene, a sounds that none present know, but one surmises it could just be the wind. A lot of horror movies try to use 'just the wind' to explain some events that are blatantly not the wind, but in this case it could be the wind for once.

"I'll talk for the right amount of candy!"

This leads us to the local general store that is in a similar state of disarray as the camper they left. They discover a body at this site however, and a mangled rifle nearby, so they still are unsure of what is happening. Leaving Ed behind to meet up with the forensic team from the camper, Ben drives off and in the dark night, with the sandstorm howling around him, Ed hears the strange sound from the camper scene and moves to investigate...

The film feels very much like a murder mystery to this point, and this is a large part of why I wish I could have seen it without knowing what ‘Them’ are beforehand. It builds the setup and atmosphere so well, the black and white film working with the shadows and darkness making things creepy and surreal. The police are baffled by what is going on at this point but find out that the trailer belonged to a vacationing FBI agent, his wife, and two children, one of which they know is the little girl at the hospital. This missing family, the murders, and the strange track all add to the feeling of dread that that has been built upon, and the police are about to get some much-needed help to deal with it all.

FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) arrives to find out what’s going on and to help the local police deal with the difficult situation. Shortly after his arrival on the scene, a father and daughter pair of myrmecologists arrive; doctors Harold and Pat Medford (played by Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon respectively). The police and FBI are both a bit confused as to why the two scientists from the Department of Agriculture have joined them, but this confusion is short lived once things get rolling. The two scientists are a bit vague about what they think has happened, but this vagueness doesn’t last long.

They first visit the little girl in the hospital and are able to shock her awake, and her reaction is startling and powerful, sending her into hysterics. Our main group then ventures back to the scene at the trailer, with the two scientists poring over the vicinity in inclement weather and with darkness again falling. It’s during this backdrop we have our first visual encounter with Them.

"We'll need a giant pair of pants for this ant!"

Them are of course, giant ants. The doctors Medford surmise that the atomic bomb tests from 1945 set their mutation in motion. Both doctors are gravely serious about the threat, even when some members of the military express doubt at the level of danger they are in. The desert nest is located and dealt with, but they discover that some queens and winged males have escaped some time ago and will make more nests. This is where the film ramps up into high gear, not that it was that slow-paced before this point, at least not for a 50s movie, but it really takes off from here.

The final acts of the film involve our intrepid team and their efforts to track down and deal with the escaped queens. This leads to a mix of amusing and serious interactions with people, as they desperately try to deal with this chitinous threat once and for all. The film culminates in some excellent action scenes and human drama and leaves one with mixed emotions on what you've just witnessed and how it affected the characters involved.

"That must have been some party!"

Watching this one again specifically to review it after viewing it a couple years back for the first time in decades, I can appreciate it more than ever. It’s a brilliant film to be sure, with an excellent cast, superb build-up, solid pacing, and amazing cinematography. The ants feel like a serious threat, even if we never see that many at once, and are kept off camera for the perfect amount of time. Some 50s movies wait far too long to have a monster show up, or they reveal it too early to its detriment. That is not a problem here. The growing suspense as to what is happening climaxes in a well-done reveal of our first giant ant in the dark sandstorm, which was a great setting and perfect mood for this crucial revelation.

I gave the cast of Tarantula! high praise, and they deserved it, but this cast is even better. There are some Hollywood heavy-hitters here, and the performances are almost universally brilliant, with my personal favorites being James Whitmore and Edmund Gwenn and the contrast between the tough, strict, but empathetic state trooper and the brilliant but wonderfully eccentric scientist, and how they can work together so well despite some friction. Joan Weldon stands up well for herself when her character should have, there’s a great scene with her doing this at the first nest, and that makes her another favorite of this already great cast.

This film has had many references in games such as Fallout and It Came from the Desert, and elsewhere, and for good reason. A lot of 50s monster movies are enjoyable, most of them in fact, but some get entertainment from how silly they can be or when MST3K lampoons them. But this movie is good on so many levels that it’s as close to a must-see as I can think of. Everything comes together so well here that I could find only a few nitpicks to even mention, and they don’t mar this stellar production to any significant degree. It’s a genuine classic.

--James Whitmore had a long and prolific acting career and was also a spokesman for Miracle-Gro for many years.

--James Arness was the main character for the TV version of Gunsmoke and starred in other movies as well.

--Edmund Gwenn is best known for being Kris Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street, and he also had many other roles.

--Joan Weldon wasn’t in that many movies, but did appear on stage, TV, and also on some radio shows.

--Fess Parker, who plays Alan Crotty, a pilot that they interview about what he’s seen, played Davy Crockett for Disney after his appearance here.

--Leonard Nimoy has a small part in this movie in the command center.

--Sandy Descher who played the little girl was in other films and TV as well but stopped acting around 1966.

--There are a lot of other performers that had more minor roles here but are seen on many other movies and TV shows.

--The film was originally going to be shot not just in color but in 3D. This was changed to black and white but when the film starts up, the title is in red and blue, the only bits of color in the movie.

--There are a lot of similarities between 1986’s Aliens and this movie. In fact, I’ve seen several side-by-side comparisons, and it's striking how many parallels there are between the two films.

--From what I can gather, they only had three giant ant models to use. They made extremely good use of those models, that’s for sure.

Four giant ant nests out of four. This is one the best giant monster movies ever made, and a great film of any genre or decade.

Morella is a Gen Xer who likes strange things a bit too much.


  1. One of my favorites! Terrific review, and I’m sure I’ll be doing a rewatch myself soon. I remember watching this one as a little kid with my family and it scaring me badly.

    1. Thanks! And I hadn't seen it in easily 30 years or more and grabbed it a year or so ago and watched it, and it's even better than I remember!


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