Them! and nuclear fears

The themes of fears of nuclear weapons, communist subversion and invasion were continued in Them! (1954). Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.com.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Subversion, literally having the political ground taken away from you is a constant theme in American political culture. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is an essay by American historian Richard J. Hofstadter, first published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964; and it served as the title essay of a book by the author in the same year. The book dealt with these ideas, which he related back through American history.

The Communist threat shown in the film starts right away with the film’s title card in Them! (1954), the only thing in colour for the entire run of the film, the word Them! which is in brilliant red. Then of course, there is the hive mind, of the ants, and the fact that they now threaten the American way of life! The fears of nuclear weapons, communist subversion and invasion were continued.  It is one film that deals with an amalgam of fears. The film began with a girl in shock, wandering through the desert.  The only thing she would said was ‘Them!’[1]  Police searched the desert and discovered that several people had been killed or were missing and that great damage had been done to houses, cars and caravans.  The local cop on the case, Sergeant Ben Peterson, played by James Whitmore, was soon joined by FBI agent Robert Graham, played by James Arness, and scientists Dr Harold Medford, played by Edward Gwenn, and his daughter Robyn, played by Joan Weldon.  Giant mutant ants, products of nuclear bomb testing were ravaging the area.  Peterson, Graham and Medford found and burned out a nest of ants in the desert.  But the queen ants had already escaped and they were traced to the sewers of Los Angeles.  In the finale, the Peterson and Graham searched the sewer for two boys who were trapped inside.  The boys were rescued and the ants were burnt to death.

In one scene, Dr Medford lectured members of the senior armed forces on the danger of the ants:

Apart form man, … ants are the only creatures on earth that make war.  They campaign.  They are chronic aggressors and they make slave labourers of captors, they don’t kill.  None of the ants previously seen by men were little more than an inch in length.  Most are considerably under that size.  But even the most minute of them have an instinct for talent and industry and social organisation and savagery that makes man look feeble by comparison.[2]

He then continued on about the problems of failing to eradicate the ants:

… Unless these queens are located and destroyed before they establish more colonies and heaven knows how many more queens, out man goes as he dominant species within a year.[3]

It is tempting to simply replace the word ‘ant’ or ‘queens with ‘communist’ and the word ‘man’ with ‘United States’, and the word ‘species’ with ‘nation’.  Near the conclusion of he film, the people of Los Angeles were told of their peril:

By direction of the President of the United States, the Governor of the State of California and the Mayor of Los Angeles in the interests of public safety is hereby declared martial law … Curfew is at 1800 hours.  Any persons on the street or outside their quarters by 6 pm will be subject to arrest by military police.  Now for the reasons for this most drastic decision.  A couple of months ago in the desert of New Mexico, a colony of giant ants were discovered.  They are similar in appearance and character to the household ant you are familiar with.  Except they are mutated, ranging in size from more than 12 feet in length.  The New Mexico colony was destroyed but two queen ants escaped.  One has been accounted for and destroyed, but the other has not yet been found.  It is now known to have established a nest in the storm drains beneath the streets of Los Angeles.  It is not known how long or how many of these lethal monsters have hatched.  Maybe a few, maybe thousands.  If new queen ants have hatched and escaped this nest other American cities may be in danger.  These creatures are extremely dangerous.  They have already killed a number of persons.  Stay in your homes.  I repeat stay in your homes.  Your personal safety, the safety of the entire city, is dependent on your full co-operation with the military authorities.[4]

The links between communism and the ants were quite clear.  If they were not destroyed, they would crush the United States.  There was no room for compromise or doubt.  As a scientist, Dr Medford was now firmly in step with the military and there was a need for the suppression of civil rights to fight the monsters.  Before the news became public, one man was a witness to the ants in flight and was locked up in an insane asylum by the Government before he could tell his story to the public.  A doctor asked when could the man be released and was told: ‘The Government will tell you when he is well.’[5]  Individual liberties were quickly forfeited involuntarily when faced with the threat form the ants.  To survive, you must fully co-operate with the military authorities.  That implied co-operation with HUAC or any other government organisation.  A constitutional or human right could not be weighed against survival.

The image of nests of ants festering beneath American cities waiting to lash out and destroy the American way of life was unsettling. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.com.

The image of nests of ants festering beneath American cities waiting to lash out and destroy the American way of life was unsettling.  All was the same on the surface, but a threat existed which grew steadily beneath normal life.  These threats were spreading from city to city. The only way to thwart these dangers was to fully co-operate with the all –knowing authorities.  These authorities may diminish civil liberties, constitutional rights, even human rights, but that is because the threat was so near and so dangerous.  Them! Was one of the most explicit statements by the American Right about communist menace within the science fiction genre.  It stated that the way to fight the communist menace within the United States was to curtail personal freedoms in order to safeguard the nation.

Despite it extreme views, Them! Had a strong anti-nuclear theme.  At its conclusion, Dr Medford, his daughter Robyn and FBI agent Robert Graham watched the burning embers of the giant ants.

ROBERT GRAHAM:If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb, what about all those others that have been exploded since.
ROBYN MEDFORD:I don’t know.
DR MEDFORD:Nobody knows, Robyn.  When man invented the atomic age, he opened a door to new world.  Who knows what we will eventually find in that new world.[6]

The camera panned over the heads of the crowd towards the burning flames coming from the ant bodies.  It was a chilling ending and touched the other central concern of the time – the fear of nuclear weapons.  It was the scientists who had unleashed this new force in the world and it was the scientists and the military who worked in concert to smash it.  To finish the film with a shot of flames underlined where the director Douglas thought nuclear weapons would take the world; into the fire.

  It was the scientists who had unleashed this new force in the world and it was the scientists and the military who worked in concert to smash it. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] Them! Warner, (d) Gordon Douglas, (w) Ted Sherdeman.

[2] Them! Op cit

[3] Them! Op cit.

[4] Them! Op cit.

[5] ibid.

[6] Them! op cit

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