Movie Analysis and Background–THEM!
THEM! as a Silly Idea
Giant ants maybe silly in 2015 but not so 1954! In 1945 Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist that led the entire Manhattan Project operation of producing the atomic bombs, wasn’t even sure that the atmosphere wouldn’t catch fire! Nor did he, or any of his scientific team, have any idea of the effects on people, like radiation sickness, so we can probably give THEM! a little latitude when it comes to long term effects on ants.
When the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were examined no one understood what had actually happened. The US even allowed sailors and scientists to walk the decks of the newly destroyed warships arrayed around the Bikini atoll after the first atomic test explosion there in 1946. In fact, it was only in March of 1954, just 3 months prior to the film’s release in June, when the first hydrogen bomb was exploded.
It’s destructive power was 1000 times that of each of the two bombs used on Japan and it scared and surprised everyone, including it’s creators! So creating giant ants based on exposure to radiation wasn’t really as lunatic an idea as it sounds 70 years after the first detonation. In that moment, they had had but 9 years to absorb it all.
The Real Ants From THEM!
Camponotus vicinus, the THEM! ants, are a very common ant species, that ranges throughout New Mexico. They prefer to nest in sandy soil under rocks but will ocassionally nest under logs and in rocky soils.
Their reproductive times run from March to October, when it is common to find both reproducing adults and eggs and larvae in the nest. Wingless or “dealate” females are present from March to mid September. Flights of winged, reproducing adults, looking to create new nests generally occur late in the day. Nests are occasionally started by multiple females starting nests together, called “pleometrosis.”
Most foraging occurs at night, although workers are also diurnal; workers will tend aphids, who feed the ants sweet syrup. Foraging workers are especially fond of the Cholla and Yucca plants. Oddly, workers are very attracted to liver, especially rotten liver, though why this is so we don’t know. Possibly for the abundant vitamins the organ possesses and the sweet taste any rotten meat will have.
Women’s Roles in THEM!
The role of women in this movie is very interesting. It departs from its many similar period pieces by showing a woman in a professional role and as an equal to the men in the story. She is involved in all the important decisions, early on more so than most of the male characters! Dr Patricia Medford, (Joan Weldon) was a myrmecologist, like her father, Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn,) both were ant scientists. In a decade when women were being sent back into the kitchen after filling in jobs in factories for men during World War II, being a myrmecologist is pretty astounding! I don’t mean to say that women could not and did not occupy these positions well, but to be placed as one in a film, THEM!, in 1954, is a revelation. The other great sci-fi classic from this time was 1951’s “The Thing From Another World,” and the female lead here, Margaret Sheridan, just plays the stereotypical secretary. Later in 1968, when a woman was cast by Gene Roddenberry as the Enterprise’s first officer in Star Trek‘s original pilot, NBC rejected the show, stating the unacceptability of a woman in this role as one of several reasons.
Dr Pat Medford is a full member of the team, especially as she accompanies Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and FBI Agent Robert Graham (James Arness,) into a giant ant nest to see if the recently used cyanide gas was effective. There is a discussion raised about her unfitness as a woman, but she wins the argument and goes. Earlier in the story she does give out a stereotypical scream when she first sees the giant ants, but she can be forgiven for that, as this is the first sighting of THEM!, and I think any man would have screamed in a similar position.
THEM! as a Sign Post
Dr. Medford ends THEM! with an open ended warning, which with 61 years of time advanced from there, seems more prescient than one would have thought! “When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”