Tuesday, July 21, 2015

THEM! (1954)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

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.' -- Dr. Medford, THEM!

We haven't seen the end of them. We've only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us.-- Medford again.

On this blog I've written extensively about how 1953's BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS influenced the original GOJIRA. and how the director of FATHOMS appears to have been in his turn influenced by the Japanese film, both in 1959's GIANT BEHEMOTH and 1961's  GORGO. But though I do think the line of influence is there, it must be added that before GOJIRA's American debut in 1955-- or even its Japanese release in November 1954-- the American SF-tradition proved itself just as capable of producing giant monsters with apocalyptic overtones. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms may not have quite succeeding in tapping the vibe of the end-times, but as the quotes above show, THEM!-- released in June 1954-- makes the most of that emotional tone.

In scrutinizing the film for its "Campbellian functions," I include "sociological" because many critics have considered the giant, atomically-mutated ants to be surrogates for an invading "Red" army. I can't deny that the film plays upon American's postwar fears of being invaded, whether by political enemies (Commies, of course) or by hypothetical extraterrestrials (the era's "flying saucer" controversy is skillfully worked into the film's latter half). However, I think both of these symbolic discourses are minimal compared to the cosmological one. The film's most pervasive fear is that man may be displaced not by intelligent beings like himself, but by "beasts." From start to finish, the viewers of THEM! are immersed in the cosmological universe of the ant-world-- the creatures' human-like propensities for war and taking slaves, the nature of their bodies, the way they make their homes, seek out food, and breed the next generation. This is the true meaning of the "them" uttered by the traumatized girl who first witnesses the monster-ants' advent. Simply by virtue of growing to giant-size, the once familiar ants become more profoundly alien than any cinematic extraterrestrial. Everything that's familiar about the creatures becomes unfamiliar, and no matter how much data one knows about them, they inspire the fear of a "them" palpable enough to unseat "us." It may not be insignificant that both at the beginning and end of the film, human children are explicitly threatened by the ants, just as the embattled humans can only win by exterminating the giant insects' progeny.

Given the film's emphasis upon the necessity for information, it's not surprising that it takes the form of a popular postwar subgenre: the police procedural, represented by two law-enforcement agents: state trooper Peterson and FBI agent Graham. Both common-sense men are thrown somewhat out of their routine worlds by inexplicable murders in the New Mexico desert, but two scientists, Doctor Medford and his pretty young daughter Pat, suspect the truth, given the locale's propinquity to the White Sands atomic tests. Graham displays an amusing moment when he becomes impatient with the two scientists' tech-speak-- "Why don't we talk English? Then we would have a basic for understanding." Soon enough the scientists' need for a specialized lingo is validated, of course. But the lawmen's attentiveness to police procedure is validated as well, and it's through their steady accumulation of clues that they track down the unusually elusive colossi. The big bugs are said to have military capabilities, but what they resemble, more than enemy troops, is a plague-infestation, not unlike the disease that the city-cops of 1950's PANIC IN THE STREETS must strive to bring under control.

I've made it a point to examine the role of the "lady scientist" in 1950s films, but until now I'd never noticed that Pat Medford may be the biggest influence of the storytelling archetype, as it goes on to appear in IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and THE DEADLY MANTIS. While there's no doubt that Pat is there in part to be a potential romantic interest for Graham, she defends her importance as an "ant-expert" in a scene midway through the film. She announces her plan to accompany Graham and Peterson when they investigate a supposedly dead nest.  Graham makes the usual statement that it's no place for a woman. Pat ably rebuts him, claiming that only her expert's eyes can find out what they need to know-- and subsequent developments reveal that she knows exactly what she's talking about.

The film's conclusion also anticipates, but surely did not influence, the conclusion of GOJIRA. Though the enemy is indeed exterminated, Medford warns that they cannot know the future-- and thus humanity's hubris in unleashing the power of the atom could still go badly for mankind somewhere down the road.

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