Thursday, February 16, 2012

And the Beasts Shall Reign Over the Earth: Them! Finding the Political Other Within

Gordon Douglas' 1954 Sci-Fi thriller Them! about giant mutant ants birthed from radiation resulting from atomic testing in New Mexico has withstood the test of time (it has a 100% approval rating from critics at Rotten Tomatoes). One of the reasons is that, politically, it has always been thought that Them! was about the Soviets, the Communists who were waiting to take over the world and end our capitalist way of life. To be fair to that interpretation, ants are usually associated with workers, and the proletariat, upon which the communist system is based, can clearly by symbolized by the worker ants. My thesis, however, is that we were more interested in ourselves after World War II than we were in those who were across the ocean, behind the "Iron Curtain" and far from being about the Soviets and communists, these films, including Them!, are about us.
The recurring motif of nuclear radiation throughout science fiction films of the decade is, more than anything, a reminder of  the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the films, therefore, can be seen as expressions of intense guilt and fear that culminates in Steven Spielberg's Jaws (which I shall be posting shortly); for example, Dr. Medford (Edmund Gwenn) specifically states in the film that in 1945 the very first atomic test was performed in that general area, White Sands, so that testifies to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings being on the minds of the film makers, and the "lingering radiation from the first atomic bomb" causing the giant ants, not later tests
Original theatrical lobby card for Them!
 In the trailer above, the advertisement says, "Even civilization itself, threatened with annihilation because in one moment in history-making violence" referencing the atomic bomb (this post builds upon my previous posts The Second Original Sin: Art In the Atomic AgeThe Decade Of Turmoil: Film In the 1950sLove In the Sonic Age: Attack Of the 50-Foot WomanOne Of Us Has To Die: The Incredible Shrinking Man and the Sexual Revolution of the 1950s and The Salt Of the Earth: The Monolith Monsters).  The key to understanding, and undermining the communist interpretation, of Them! is sugar. The ants being after sugar symbolizes "the sweet life" which is a part of the capitalist mentality, not the communist. It is the average person, in pursuit of la dolce vita, the sweet life, that becomes dehumanized and brings this "nameless horror" of losing their human identity upon themselves and everyone else.
The first image in the film and the only color. There really is no reason that it should be in red and blue, with a faint outlining of white, unless the film makers specifically wanted to invoke the colors of the American flag, thereby clearly establishing that the film is about Americans, not Soviets. At one point, during the secret press conferences about the ants, a news reporter asks, "Has the Cold War just gotten hot?" and the answer is obviously no.
When Them! opens, it's in the desert, and a desert (whether sand or ice or rock) is always a sign of the soul: a soul without grace and a landscape that cannot sustain life. This is the reason why these giant ants have been able to live and mutate in the desert, no one is there, that is, no one has been tending to the soul, like the ants, everyone has been after "sugar," the good things in life, and not the spiritual things. Why is it Dr. Medford who is able to solve the mystery and answer the riddle of the footprint that no one else can identify? When he is meeting with the generals, after they have found the nest, Dr. Medford is at the water cooler, taking a long, deep drink of water (water is a symbol of grace); this is a favorite commentary device of directors like Alfred Hitchcock, because it shows the character "taking in grace" to prepare and sustain them on the upcoming journey.
The little girl from the opening sequence. She's very similar to little Ginny from The Monolith Monsters and David from Invaders From Mars.
Who is the little girl?
It might be easier to say who she is not. She is not the doll she carries. Children are important characters in the Sci-Fi genre because they symbolize the future and also because children are innocent, they haven't committed the same sins and believe the same lies that adults do. The reason why this little girl escapes "Them" is because she is still alive and can recognize when something isn't right. Her family was on vacation and her father, mother and sibling were eaten by the ants; by evidence of the doll's head and her torn robe Sergent Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) discovers, we know she hid in a small cubby hole, symbolic of returning to the womb, the ultimate place of safety (or it was before abortion and Roe vs. Wade). The doll's head cracked really under scores the damage the girl herself has undergone.
But what exactly happened?
Another definite linking Them! makes to humans is in the demonstration of strength and power. Towards the end, when Ben is trying to save the two little Lodge boys, he will be in a tunnel and have to bend back the bars in order for him to get out to get to them and for them to get to safety. Like the ant in the film strip moving the pebble, and the damage done to the house trailer and Gramps' store, so Ben will use his strength to push out the metal bars.
Before we can answer that, we need to know the nature of ants.
In the film strip presentation by Dr. Medford, he describes how "ants are savage, ruthless and courageous fighters.. . . Ants are the only creatures on Earth other than man who make war. They campaign. They are chronic aggressors. They make slave laborers of the captives they don't kill.. . . Even the most minute of them have an instinct and talent for industry, social organization and savagery that makes man look feeble by comparison." In listing off these characteristics, Dr. Medford is not describing the ants, rather, the characteristics of humans, Americans, that Them! wants to talk about and the consequences it is having on society. Thomas Lodge, a man we never see in the film, only his covered corpse, is the key to linking the ants and the humans.
Dr. Medford and Mrs. Lodge (right) whose two sons are stuck inside the ant's Los Angeles nest. It's from her that, as audience members, we can deduce what Them! is trying to tell us. The 700 miles of tunnels underneath Los Angeles is comparable to the model nest being shown in diagram form by Dr. Medford and links humans to the aunts in just another way.
Thomas Lodge worked a job on Sunday and would take the kids, Jerry and Mike, out for a few hours Sunday morning to play and have fun before he had to go to his other job. Because his working was not only taking him away from his family, but taking him away from Church as well, the man had no strength in him (both his arms were ripped off, arms symbolize strength). Thomas Lodge is attacked by the ants because he is an ant, all he does is work, and all that working was causing him to lose his humanity and turn into an ant, an animal. The boys are able to escape, literally, because they see how much all their father's work is costing (not earning) and they don't want to become like that themselves. Now we can talk about the little girl.
Throughout the film, there is the "speaking of cross-purposes" amounting to silence like the little girl's. When the autopsy report on Gramps comes in, they want "the plain verb" and when Pat tells Bob that her father is one of the world's greatest myrmecologist, Bob says, "Why can't we all speak English?" The same thing happens in the helicopter when Dr. Medford is trying to talk on the radio to Pat and Ben insists on the rules, Dr. H. Medford doesn't understand why he has to do it that way. The film is full of little instances such as this, making it a great film.
Her family being on an extended vacation, probably because her father had put in so much work that the FBI had to compensate him, but that wasn't enough. At some point, the family that no longer recognized each other fell apart, and only the little girl was able to see and survive her family's inner trauma and struggle. The sugar was taken from the trailer because "sugar" was what they had been after. Similarly, Gramps in his store had the sugar robbed from him. We know from the head of police that Gramps didn't have an enemy in the world, but he was crushed and there was enough formic acid in him to kill 20 men. That's what happens in real life, the sugar we are after and desire--in whatever form--becomes acid within us, poison and it destroys us. What's interesting about when Gramps is found, is when Ed Blackburn sees the sugar turned-over, there are little black ants all throughout it; the little ants we see mean that Gramps had "little ambitions," but they controlled him instead of him controlling them.
When the little girl is in the hospital, and Dr. Medford has her to smell the formic acid, she screams hysterically and yells, "Them! Them!" because her mother or her father probably "spit acid" at the other in conversation, they got into a fight (because they have been apart for so long) and when her parents started fighting, she realized that they were no longer her family, her family had become total strangers to her, her family had become them, they who have no names or faces, and that's why she ran from them.
So why does Ed Blackburn die?
There is something we know about Ed Blackburn and that is, he's a crack shot, he can hit anything he can see, but, from the way we find out that he is in fact dead, is the ant at the nest chomping on his rib cage, which, in fact, means that Ed Blackburn is "hollow." It doesn't mean that he wasn't a good guy, it just means that he was an ant, too, because he did his job but there wasn't anything to which he had given himself, nothing that made him a deeper person. Therefore, knowing that Ed was a crack shot ends up being the only thing that we know about Ed because there is nothing else to know (and that's why, pictured below, his body can be identified by the gun). He didn't spend his life making a family (we never hear about his widow) or any other projects that would have been meaningful (not that being a cop and public servant, always in the line of danger, giving your life for others, isn't worthy and meaningful, however, he didn't do anything for himself--versus his public service--that made his life meaningful).
So why does Ben Peterson die?
He's such a great guy, he cares so much for the kids, he's heroic and brave, caring and compassionate, why does he die? We could argue that it is just a theatrical device, meant to upset the audience and pull on the emotions, however, if we juxtapose this scene against the upcoming scene when Bob is trapped with several ants, we know it's not an accident or a device. The ant that gets Ben sneaks up, after Ben has taken off his flame-throwing weapon, and gets him right in the middle. How is Ben an ant? He's a workaholic like Ed. He wasn't as bad as Ed, that's how he was able to survive so long and ward off so many of the attacks, but just as the police chief said, don't fold up on us later when we need you, this is the moment that, bitten in half, Ben folds up in half because he hasn't been taking care of himself and living outside of his job. (An observation Ben has made is that both the trailer and Gramps' store was pushed out, not caved in, and when he's pulling on the bars in the tunnel to get to Mike and Jerry, he's pushing the bars out a way from himself).
Definitely the saddest moment of the film and it was good that they did it so that, when we think of those we know and love, we can warn them to take better care of themselves, and help them, so that they don't end up the same way, folded. It's odd because, in place of a wedding ring, Ben has a small bandage on his ring finger, suggesting perhaps that he might be a widower who threw himself into his work after his wife's death, or he had been unlucky in love previously, but something had hurt him to where he would not get married and he never overcame it.
Since we know why characters in the film die, why does Robert "Bob" Graham (James Arness) live? In pursuing Pat (Dr. Patricia Medford played by Joan Weldon) he's pursuing something that will be meaningful in life. Unlike his counter part in the FBI Mr. Ellinson, the little girl's father, Bob is trying to balance his life. He jokes about "getting a fever real quick" if Pat is the kind of doctor who takes care of sick people, but the truth is, it is precisely because he is healthy that he can pursue her. The problem is with Pat: since Dr. Patricia Medford is the first one to see the ant she is the queen ant.
Up to this point (pictured above) we have heard them and people have died, but the audience hasn't actually seen "them."  Usually, the monster/alien appearing to the first person is either the psychoanalytic double of the main person or the fear threatening the hero's existence, in this case, the ant above symbolizes Pat as the queen ant and her relationship with Bob can be traced throughout the film just as the flight of the queen ants can be traced.
Lobby card for Them! Please note the goggles they wear during the sand storm when Drs. Medford go to visit the camp site. When they first get there, Dr. Medford has to be told by Ben to put his goggles on, then he doesn't get them on correctly, and Ben has to straighten them for him. In the film strip presentation, Dr. Medford says, "Ants don't see well at all," and they can only locate things with the antennae. Dr. Medford not seeing well (he usually wears glasses) and then not being able to get the goggles on, is one of the ways the film makers connects us to them, and shows the audience that it's not them we should be afraid of but ourselves.
To begin with, when we first see Pat, she gets stuck in the airplane between the ground and the inside of the passenger bay and we only see her legs. Legs symbolize the will, so we can deduce, upon first seeing her, that Pat is stuck between the man-made world (a male dominated world of science) of the airplane and the natural world of the ground (the traditional roles of women). Because it's her skirt that is caught, that tells us about her problems with her self-identity because clothes offer us information about how we perceive ourselves and want others to perceive us, and Pat has a problem between being a woman and a scientist. Additionally, she doesn't want any help getting "unstuck" and this will be a problem in the rest of the film.
Just before Pat sees the ant for the first time, she and Bob have an exchange when Bob gets upset about how Dr. H. Medford is treating them and Pat defends her father. Pat then goes to look for another print on her own, then seeing the giant ant coming after her. It's fairly typical that, when seeing the monster/alien for the first time in films of this period, that the main character falls, symbolically meaning that they either have a weak will or they have committed some "sin," whether actual or social or psychological to cause them to be in a spiritually/emotionally weakened state.
There is another problem that Pat has: her father.
Dr. Harold Medford oscillates between calling his daughter "Doctor" and "Pat," confounding her problem. When Bob gets upset that Dr. H. Medford is keeping him in the dark, Pat says, "If the 'Doctor' bothers you just call me Pat." Every time something like this happens with Pat and Bob, an ant will have to be killed, because it symbolizes how something "comes between them." Pat is torn between being a scientist, a very good scientist, and "laying eggs and making a nest," the way a woman's instinct takes over at one point or another.
"We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true. 'And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation. And the Beasts shall reign over the earth." What does this mean? The "beasts" being referred to is humans who feed only their appetites and not their soul. When a person's soul is neglected, they cease to exist as children of God and degenerate into being animals which is what the film is warning us against.
If I am correct, and Pat can be taken as the "queen ant" in the film, then she must have a mating flight, and that would be shown here, in this scene when Pat and Robert are flying in the helicopter and locate the nest. But there were two queens that escaped, weren't there? The second wedding flight is when Pat and Robert go to talk to Mr. Crotty (Fess Parker who played American frontier hero Davy Crockett; if we want to be picky, we can say that the "arrival flight" into New Mexico is the mating flight for the established nest they first go into).
The helicopter they are in is the black thing just above the ant.
Let's talk a moment about two important weapons used in the film: bazookas and flame-throwers.
While both weapons were used as early as World War I, there was far wider use and dependency upon them in World War II; the bazookas were used against German tanks and the flame throwers (very flexible and adaptable to a number of conditions, including trench warfare) were primarily used in the Battle of the Pacific and the jungle warfare encountered on the islands. What's important about the presence of these weapons is the distance it created between the one shooting them and the victim, causing, just like in Them! for marines and soldiers using the weapons in World War II to become "exterminators" of human life, to treat enemies, not like people, but bugs, pests and rodents; this dehumanizing psychology American soldiers adapted in order to make it through the war and win is part of what is being targeted as the slow dehumanization process in the spiritual death of the country.
According to our research in The Incredible Shrinking Man, the Pacific Ocean became a site for films that linked up with the hardships fought in the Battle of the Pacific so we should not be surprised that one of the queen ants lays a nest in a boat in the Pacific.
The most important part of Pat's and Bob's relationship is after Ben has died and they are searching for the nest, Bob goes first and there is an avalanche, separating him from the rest of the group. He's attacked by several large ants and is nearly overcome; his gun jams but he manages to stay alive until the others break through to save him. It's not so much that it's Pat being put in her place, rather, that Bob has been put back in his, that he is on the front line, where he wants to be, doing his job and defending his country that his self-respect calls for him to do.
The ants getting 40 tons of sugar from this freight car seemingly proves my thesis: because the night guard hasn't missed any work, but also hasn't taken any bribes or done anything crooked, he doesn't get killed by the aunts because he's not after the sweet life for himself; he does his job and he does his job well, but his job doesn't own him.
When Pat gets to Bob's side after he has survived the ants, she doesn't say a word, but sees that his right arm has been hurt. The right arm, of course, means strength, so he hasn't come out unscathed, but he has survived, and he will be stronger for it. That he has learned to wait before burning the ants shows that he has learned respect for Pat and her knowledge, but her going to his side means that she is ready to find her own, permanent nest.
Them! shows us a society that is deteriorating, from the opening lines about a man "drinking his breakfast," to the alcoholics permanently in the ward at the hospital, to the woman speeding 60 mph after spending the night with a married man, to the loony bin that Mr. Crotty is locked up in, Them! details mounting faults within American society, and the major culprit is the pursuit of the sweet life. Like the Westerns that we will be examining shortly, films in the 1950s were exploring the potential evils and pitfalls of capitalism, they never suggest that we should not be a capitalist society, but the harms that we must individually and collectively look out for and becoming mindless ants, just working all the time, and losing our human identity, is the greatest of them.
Leonard Nimoy in an early, uncredited role.