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“We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true,” said Dr. Harold Medford, played by Edmund Gwenn, in the thrilling Them!
The tale of man versus giant ant built on America’s fear of the atomic bomb. In the years following the historic events of World War II, Hollywood would continue to mine the horrors of radiation for creative means. In 1954 that horror was giant ants.
After the success of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Warner Brothers purchased another story from science fiction author George Worthing Yates.
However, the first draft changed much of the original story and would have been too expensive to film. Producer Ted Sherdeman helped fix the script by changing the location from New York to Los Angeles and eliminating a costly finale that took place at an amusement park. Sherdeman had been a staff officer for General MacArthur in World War II and his own experiences influenced the final product.
While it could have been easy to ham the movie up, the story wasn’t played for laughs. “[We] weren’t trying to make a comic strip or be cute about it,” said director Gordon Douglas.
The original ants were created by Larry Meggs, and they were only three feet long. Eventually, mechanical ants that were twelve feet long were completed.
The ants moved with a series of pulleys and gears, which made it easy for the technicians to bump into each other as they made the giants come to life.
The monsters were green and purple with red and blue eyes, and vaseline was used to wet down their bodies and make them slimy. “They scared the bejeezus out of you,” said Douglas.
But it wasn’t just the look that was frightening – it was the sound. The ant’s cry was a mix of multiple different noises, including bird whistles, that were manipulated.
One person who had to act particularly scared was Sandy Descher, who played the little girl that screamed, “Them!”
“It was a very difficult shoot, particularly for a child so young,” she said. In fact, the weather was so hot that she had a double and a stand-in. To make matters worse, they filmed with sand blowing about the desert.
“In particular it was difficult for me to maintain that catatonic state. I had to keep my eyes open, and sand was always blowing in them.”
She wasn’t the only one suffering. Joan Weldon and Edmund Gwenn wore wool clothing, and the director had an unfortunate run-in with a cactus.
“I remember Mr. Douglas was directing me from under the camera. Suddenly he fell into a cactus bush, but he kept going,” Descher said. “He wound up with a number of stickers in his rump, and he had to have them pulled out with tweezers by the make-up man.”
The production was originally to be filmed in color and 3-D. However, Warner Brothers began to have second thoughts about the film and attempted to sell the screenplay instead. In the end, the production continued though with less of a budget – necessitating that it be filmed in black and white.
Fess Parker said, “[Them!] was so well received as an early science fiction picture that it broke all record in Great Britain.”
Them! not only performed well at the box office but was the first of several giant bug tales, which included The Black Scorpion, Tarantula, and The Deadly Mantis.