The Thing (1951)
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The Thing From Another World (1951)

To truly appreciate a classic fifties Sci-Fi/Horror film like ‘The Thing from Another World’, you have an understanding of the socio-political influences of the period. I grew up during this time in American history; it was a time of political distrust, Communism as a world thread and the beginning of a new age of scientific wonder. Faith in the military was high, only a few years before the American armed forces saved the world from the Axis powers, substantially due to technological advances. True to form, Hollywood incorporated all these factors into movies represented by The Thing. Set in an isolated scientific outpost in the Arctic, a group of scientists discovers an anomaly that crashed, now buried under the ice. They call for the assistance of the military determining the buried object is round, resulting in them jumping to the conclusion that they found a flying saucer! In their attempt to free it from the ice they use too many explosives destroying the object. A block of ice is extracted containing what looks like a huge humanoid form. Right from the start dramatic tension is fostered by exploring the subtle conflict between the military, represented by Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and the scientific community, personified by their leader Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite)

These complicated interdependencies are representative of a common feeling back then. A popular view was that scientific advancements are wonderful, but they should be under the responsible, ever watchful eye of the armed forces. This self-serving attitude of the military came to the foreground during the concerted effort to create the first Atomic Bomb, the Manhattan Project. Only a few years before this the military unleashed the fearsome power of the atom to win the war. People were living better than ever, but there were still those out there to threaten this security. The alien, played by James Arnes, was not like us, it was more vegetable than animal, it lived off blood and was almost unstoppable. Just as the Communist was poised to destroy us, this strange creature represented a threat never seen before. Caught between Carrington and Hendry were the Doctor’s secretary, Nikki (Margaret Sheridan). She was an example of the tough new breeds of woman that arose out of the necessity of World War II. Women left their traditional home-bond roles filling in for the men in combat. Afterward, the new feeling of self-confidence continued. Nikki exemplified this attitude blazing a new view of women in film.

This low budget film ideally depicted in the microcosm American life. Do we study this new life form or react to the immediate danger? Part of the reason this film has endured as such a cult classic is how the script by Charles Lederer based on the story ‘Who Goes There’ by John W. Campbell Jr. captured in an entertaining format the fears of the public so well. Science fiction is often used to express these anxieties in a more palatable form, one where the message is cloaked in a pure flight of fiction. The film ends with a warning "I bring a warning--to every one of you listening to the sound of my voice. Tell the world, tell this to everyone wherever they are: watch the skies, watch everywhere, keep looking--watch the skies!" While most would associate this admonition with the dread ‘Red Menace’ the film makes its point.

Many familiar faces populated this flick. They were not the ones considered either now or then as the ‘A’ list members of Hollywood, but they were consistent in the dedication they gave to their performances. Tobey is well known to those of us that relish a good fifties yarn. His consistency in roles ranging from westerns to war flicks and dramas entertained us right up to his death in 2002. He played Hendry as a military man aware of his responsibilities yet able to find humor in the situation. Cornthwaite gives us men devoted to science yet not aware of the two-edged sword most major discoveries present. Here is a man that needs to know without concern for the consequences. My wife has always gotten a kick out of the way Sheridan portrays Nikki. She is a secretary, a typical role for a woman, yet she wore pants, could drink the good Captain under the table yet when times got rough her first thought was to keep the menfolk in an unending supply of fresh hot coffee. A few years before America was willing to accept Rosie the Riveter, but now, they expected the security of a more traditional woman even in the most untraditional of situations. Arnes, best known for his twenty years on television in Gunsmoke, was no stranger to this ‘B’ flicks. Like his brother Peter Graves, he made a nice career for himself with these films. Here, he lumbers around destroying; there is no depth or humanity to his monster and true to the underlying focus of the film, none should be expected.

The director of this film has been a bit of controversy for some time. While officially Christian Nyby was at the helm the actual director was Howard Hawks. Nyby started as the editor for Hawks, and they enjoyed a long friendship. When Nyby, trying to advance his career in direction found himself in a bit of trouble with the film, he called on his friend to step in. This has been confirmed by the cast and remains one of the strange things that are pervasive in this industry. Nyby did go on to direct many television shows and was followed in this career path by his son and grandson. Hawks had a great eye for framing a scene. His resume was heavy on the western and war genres, and he brought these techniques over to this film — the scenes were set up to focus the eye of the viewer directly on the action. There was little in the way a practical solution of distracting ancillary sets; the characters were the film. He paces this flick to perfection; not one wasted moment is to be found. The editing was sharp and to the point. With a spooky score, this film remains a classic.

The fiftieth university DVD in 2001 was a much-appreciated improvement over the previous VHS release fan finally have a remastered Blu-ray as part of the ever-expanding Warner Brothers Archive Collection. This imprint of one of the founding studios of Hollywood has devoted to providing the discerning cinephile with the best renditions of the movies that made cinema into a major means of artistic expression. As difficult it is to accept, there remain movie fans that consider it a waste to expend the resources to provide a high definition release of an old movie originally mastered in mono and Black and White. The reality is such an assumption is erroneous, depriving its adherents to experiencing great films in with the best possible audio and video. Even if you have seen these movies during their initial theatrical release, it is certain that your home theater system offers a far superior infrastructure and technology than even the best venues. With a story that unfolds in a setting consistently dark and foreboding, the higher resolution and precise contrast/brightness settings permit greater discernment of the subtle nuances of the director and cinematographer. Only then can you fully understand the necessary collaboration between the talented artisans responsible for the distinctive visual impact that guides and reaffirms the underlying narrative. Younger fans brought up on colorful movies heavily relying on advanced special effects, are often ill-prepared to completely understand the incredible skill and ingenuity required when the paradigm precluded color, ATMOS audio, and intricate computer effects. A modern filmmaker wouldn’t have to devote much time to achieve the effect of shrinking the 6’6’ James Arness down to a miniature humanoid figure. A few keystrokes and it is a fait accompli. In 1950 a practical solution was needed resolute with the clever use of a little person and masterful editing. I have enjoyed this film many times over the last few decades never able to notice the precision and craftsmanship required to successfully deliver a dénouement lasting a few seconds yet remains in the collection of memorable science fiction endings. The way that the illumination of the electric charge flickers in the darkened room or the contrast between the inherent shadow, and the meager light of the lamps hanging over the hapless scientist creates a deeper level of terror, an atmosphere of impending doom and claustrophobia created not by physical constrictions but the master class manipulation of the lighting. This is merely one of the obvious examples that came to mind. Repeated viewings of this high definition release will reveal a myriad of others. This seminal film that helped define an era solidifying the hybrid genre d Sci-Fi/Horror for generations to come.

Posted 12/29/04            Posted   11/28/2018

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