This is not the first Leonard Nimoy movie I saw. That was Rhubarb, a movie about baseball. Nimoy’s film career goes back even further than that, appearing previously in Queen for a Day. I also saw Francis Goes to West Point. However, I don’t have any of those movies. And this may be the most notable of his early films. It’s Them! from Warner Brothers in 1954, and it stars James Arness and James Whitmore.
Opening shots show New Mexico police scouring the desert from an airplane. They are in communication with cops on the ground. We know this is the New Mexico desert because there are Joshua trees all over. Never mind that Joshua trees are only found in the Mojave Desert, which is not actually in New Mexico. However, for the story line this has to be in New Mexico.
The cops in the plane spot a little girl (Sandy Descher) trudging all alone in the wilderness, and the cops on the ground zero in and pick her up in their car. She appears to be physically unharmed but in a state of shock.
The mystery deepens as police Sergeant Ben Peterson (Whitmore) and trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) come across the family travel trailer in the desert. It has been torn apart by something unknown. There is blood but no bodies. It would appear the girl is the sole survivor of the Ellison family.
The child safely off to the hospital in an ambulance, the police officers stop by a store along the road. It’s also been torn apart. The proprietor is dead in the basement, crushed and bloody. Here comes the part in all such movies. Trooper Blackburn is left behind to guard the premises while Sergeant Peterson drives back to report.
Everybody watching by now is shouting at the screen. “No, don’t go out side to investigate that strange noise!” Of course Trooper Blackburn does go outside, with his trusty service revolver. And that’s the last we see of him. We hear him firing his pistol and finally giving his last screams for life.
The family in the desert belonged to an FBI agent on vacation. This brings in agent Robert Graham (Arness). A copy of the strange footprint found at the crime scene is sent off to FBI headquarters. This brings in two scientists, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his glamorous daughter Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon). They arrive in an Air Force B-25 for some odd reason. This means of arrival provides some great optics as Graham and watch feminine legs descend from the bomber’s belly hatch. This movie is going to have sex.
Dr. Medford senior has formed an idea about what’s behind the mystery. He specializes in ants. He passes a sample of formic acid beneath the nose of the young Ellison girl, causing her to break her state of shock and scream, “Them!” and giving the movie its name.
Without changing from their science conference clothing the Doctors Medford journey out to the desert crime scene to investigate. In a blinding sand storm glamorous Patricia wanders into the desert. We know what’s about to happen. She hears the high-pitched screeching noise. A monstrous ant appears. Graham and Peterson open up with their pistols. The giant is stalled. Peterson finishes off the creature with his tommy gun. The mystery is solved.
A huge nest is discovered and soon wiped out using military weapons. But the scientists determine eggs have already hatched. There will be other colonies. The search is on.
At an Army base a sergeant pulls a message off a teletype machine. The sergeant is played by Leonard Nimoy..
This flick is loaded with talent. Future talent, at least. The message is about a pilot who has seen flying objects. He’s been hospitalized in a psycho ward. It’s Alan Crotty played by Fess Parker. This is shortly before Parker went to great fame as David Crockett in the Walt Disney TV and movie releases. For the time being he must remain in the psycho ward. The secret must be kept to avoid alarming the public.
The search continues. We see a ship at sea infested and attacked. Only two of the crew survive. Navy gunfire sinks the hulk, and the survivors are kept at sea. This must be kept secret.
Then in Los Angeles a rail car loaded with sugar is found destroyed. The search is narrowing.
A woman reports her husband and two sons have disappeared. Graham notices how much the city’s enormous storm drains appear to be a perfect place for a giant ant nest. In the drainage channel they discover the remains of a model airplane associated with the missing father and boys.
A huge military operation is assembled. Soldiers in Jeeps penetrate the drainage tunnels with heavy weapons. Sergeant Peterson finds the two boys alive (not the father) and rescues them. Too late. He cannot save himself. We knew all along that Arness was going to get the girl at the end of the movie.
For some reason in movies like this all the original characters have to be in on the final action. This means that even glamorous Patricia dons Army gear and is in on the final assault in the tunnel, along with her soon to be sweetheart Graham, by now wounded and acting very heroic. Too bad the movie ends right there. No long, lingering embrace in slinky evening clothing in a romantic setting. Leaves a lot to the imagination.
Production quality for this film is amazingly high. The cinematography is spot on. The plot fits together well, never mind the Joshua trees. The Joshua trees look good in a desert scene, but the desert setting has to be New Mexico, because that’s where the first atomic bomb was exploded nine years before, triggering the mutant ant population.
This is not just a straight line plot involving unimagined tragedy followed by discovery of the horrific menace followed by destruction of the menace. The plot develops into a detective story as Graham and others seek out remaining giant nests. Colorful characters are introduced without dragging down the plot. This is close to the cream of the monster movies from the 1950s, the very top being The Thing from Another World, also featuring James Arness. Arness was soon to ascend to fame as Matt Dillon on TV.
Gwenn is tops, as he always was, starting with the sinister assassin in Foreign Correspondent right on through as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street. This was close to Gwenn’s final major film role. He died five years later.