Though Gordon Douglas’ 1954 monster movie Them! tells a far more quiet, intimate story than its modern descendants, one of the first ways it clues you in to the danger its human heroes are in is a haunting, piercing noise that calls out from the wilderness.
When sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and army soldier Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) stumble upon a little girl (Sandy Descher) wandering around the New Mexico desert alone, the men can tell from the child’s catatonic state that something’s gone terribly wrong. Because she isn’t capable of speaking due to whatever she’d been through, though, Peterson and Blackburn aren’t initially aware of the situation at hand as they take it upon themselves to search for the girl’s family. Where many modern monster movies’ focus on kids trying to reunite with their parents ends up becoming a distraction, Them! quickly weaves Peterson and Blackburn’s initial concern for the Ellinson girl into a larger story about humanity discovering a new kind of beast in its midst. As Them!’s heroes set out to understand what happened to the girl’s family, a trail of large-scale destruction and massive amounts of formic acid imply that the culprits they’re searching for might not be human, but rather ants.
Watching Them! now, you can immediately get a sense of what sort of irradiated monstrosity the movie intends to surprise you with. But through characters like Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon) — a pair of myrmecologists who lend their expertise to the investigation — you can see how the filmmakers felt the need to ground their fiction in a certain degree of science in order for it to make sense to audiences at the time.
Much like the original Godzilla, which premiered in Japan a few months later, Them! was a foreboding (though at times cheesy) reflection on the outsized devastation that nuclear weapons brought into the world. But where Godzilla was deeply rooted in Japan’s specific experience being the target of nuclear bombs during World War II, the American anxieties present in Them! read as being more about the existence of nuclear powers out in the world. The deeper Peterson, Blackburn, and the Medfords dig into the strange occurrences in the desert, the more it becomes clear that ants are, in fact, the enemy. However, these specific bugs have all managed to somehow grow to be the size of cars. While these ants err on the sillier side of animatronics, what makes them so unsettling to see bursting from the ground is how well they approximate the things that are alarming about regular ants. Every snap of the bugs’ mandibles is a warning of how easy it’d be for them to snip a person in two, and their strength at that size makes physically fighting them impossible for people by themselves. Unintentionally funny as its huge ants often are, Them! becomes that much more grim a film when you see how easy it is for them to kill those they encounter. The true danger the ants present in the film, though, is that they’re every bit as inclined to organise as their smaller cousins, and built to multiply. Alarming as the idea of the first colony is, everyone understands the threat posed when two queens fly off to start their own insect empires elsewhere in the world.
Even though Them! ultimately pits humans against the ants, the movie isn’t exactly coy about implying that the bugs were mutated by America’s experiments with nuclear weapons. Even as you’re meant to be rooting for humanity, Them! emphasises just how much like regular ants the monsters are, and everything that they’re doing is simply their natural behaviour as they seek to form more colonies. It’s the sort of idea that’s going to be good to keep in mind in the next few weeks as our real-world Brood X cicadas emerge from the ground in the U.S., but also going forward as insects invariably end up in the news for doing something that’s both amazing and terrifying.