Ever since it was feasible for regular people to collect their favorite movies and television shows the world experienced the greatest paradigm shift in entertainment since the advent of the moving picture. By nineteen hundred this culminated in the DVD, a format that would experience significant technological enhancements but would remain fixed around the shiny diss that dominate the home entertainment market. One of the great things about DVDs, the and the subsequent high definition variations that followed, is that the studios can do more than releasing the current blockbusters films in addition to the essential classics. Recently, there have been several refreshed releases of those great little Sci-Fi flicks that we enjoyed as children, the very films that began our lifelong enjoyment of movies. The early fifties were a time when America had just entered the atomic age. The use of the A-bomb in World War II sparked scientific investigation on the effects of radiation on living matter. Each generation incorporates the current fear gripping the public into the films representing the current zeitgeist. For the baby boomers born into the atomic age, the side effects of the A-bomb finally inspired a new manifestation of terror. It created the genre of giant insects and other monstrous mutations created by radiation rising to attack. Among the most memorable of these films is ‘Them!’
As the film opens state troopers, investigate reports of very strange events. Upon arriving on the scene, the general store is in ruins, what is unusual is the devastation was not the result of an explosion but rather something outside ripping the structure apart. There was evidence of shots fired but no bodies, considering the proprietor known to be a crack shot which hit what he aimed at, but there were no signs of blood. Then a little girl in a catatonic state is found wandering in the desert. The only stimulus that can get a reaction from her is the smell of formaldehyde, a substance excreted by ants. An odd footprint is found and sent to Washington subsequently identified as an ant. From the size of the casting, they determined that the specimen had to be impossibly huge. Police Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) is assigned the cast and is to work alongside FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) and a father/daughter scientist team, elderly Dr. Harold Metford (Edmund Gwenn) and his beautiful, intelligent daughter Pat (Joan Weldon).
The team tracks down the first nest of giant ants only to find two winged queens have left to start nests somewhere else. What makes this film interesting are some of the more subtitle aspects many that reflect the fears and apprehensions of the time. One such aspect was the public view of science. While science had begun to make the life of most people easier, there was a fear of the side effects of radiation. How this new, powerful force would affect nature. Even though science inadvertently created the menace, it was at the ready to combat it and ensure our survival. In post-WWII America, there was also the reassurance that the United States military was always willing to protect us against any foe no matter how powerful. While the communist threat was becoming a topic on everyone’s mind knowing the Army was able to protect us from monsters allowed us to be sure that they will keep us safe from the ‘Commies.' Lastly, there was the changing role of women. During WWII women began to move out of the household and into the workplace. The character of Doctor Pat Medford showed a strong woman, not only beautiful but intelligent, brave and willing to do everything required to stave off the menace.
This film had an exceptionally talented cast. The elder doctor Medford was played by Edmund Gwen, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Kris Kringle in the classic holiday Miracle on 34th Street. His career started in 1916, and he brings the experience of such a career to the table here. Gwen provides humor and the required scientific exposition. Weldon plays her role as an able young woman, a role model for the young girls that grew up in the fifties. There is strength in her performance; she shows that a woman can be attractive and still be a success in formerly male-dominated roles. James Whitmore has proved himself on stage and screen over the many decades of his notable career. Here as a state trooper, he nails the role. Here is an actor twice nominated for Oscars, winner of an Emmy playing opposite giant ants with the same dedication to his craft as if he was with the best actors around. For James Arness, fighting giant insects seem to run in the family. His younger brother Peter Graves was in many 50’s Sci-Fi flicks including one fighting huge grasshoppers. Mr. Arness seems a little out of place at times, especially for the fans that remember his record-breaking two decades in the same television role.
There was a notable similarity between these fifties science fiction films and westerns. Careful observation will reveal that the look and feel of the two genres are quite similar. Speaking of westerns, look carefully for Fess Parker, TV’s Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in the hospital scene. The actors here took this film seriously, and the quality of the film benefited in every way. Gordon Douglas has directed some 95 films in his career, many westerns. At this time it was commonplace for the cast and crew of Hollywood westerns to migrate into science fiction, the newly popular genre. Like the cast, Douglas took the making of this film as a serious project. Rather than just making a Saturday morning fluff piece he set out to create a film with merit that was able to tell a story reflecting the human condition, the fears, and hopes that defined the times. Of course, he had to contend with giant robotic ants. While the special effects created by Dick Smith paled in comparison to the CGI wonders of today, they worked. I remember watching this film as a kid completely in awe of the ants. Douglas also knew how to get in touch with the emotions of the audience. In one memorable scene, the little girl that survived an ant attack sits up in the ambulance upon hearing the sound made by the mutated ants. No one sees her, except for the audience and the look on her face of complete terror provides a foreshadowing of what is to come. Some many directors today make bad movies. They seem to want to get the paycheck. With Douglas, we have a director that put everything into his films. Certainly, this is a fifties creature feature, but the artistic flair, panache, and professionalism made this film a true classic and the epitome of a beloved genre.
De rigueur for the early days of this digital format, this classic example of fifties science fiction released in 2002 as a plain vanilla disc, there was a great demand for cult classic films especially the creature features us baby boomers routinely enjoyed as kids. After all, that was our formative period when our lifelong infatuation with cinema. Finally, the studios have gotten around to remastering it to high definition. The Dolby mono audio has been upgraded to DTS-HD Master Audio, albeit still in mono. The best news for aficionados of movies is the original aspect ratio of 1:1.78 has been restored providing us with an experience closer to what we had in the theater for those who are dubious of high resolution for a nearly sixty-year-old, black and white movie. The fact is that it makes a substantial difference. Even if you have watched this movie more time than you can remember fresh details will become obvious. The textures pop out establishing a sense of realism that the cropped video couldn’t manage. If your home theater receiver is capable of various audio setting, and most do, try setting it to emulation of an old theater or hall when the newly enhanced video is combined with a realistic soundstage and reverberation of that classic setting with transport you back in time.
Posted 7/11/03 Blu-ray 10/24/2015 01/01/2019