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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 capitalized on America’s fear of the atomic bomb. In the years following the historic events of World War II, Hollywood continued to mine the "what if" 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.
Larry Meggs created the first ant models, which were only three feet long. Later, mechanical ants were constructed that were twelve feet long. The ants moved with a series of pulleys and gears. Operating them though could be a challenge because it was easy for the technicians to bump into each other as they made the beasts move.
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 ants' cry was a mix of multiple different noises, including manipulated bird whistles.
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, just in case of heat exhaustion. To make matters worse, the wind stirred up the desert sand while they were filming, getting it everywhere.
Descher said, “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 though. 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 meant to be filmed in color and 3-D. However, Warner Brothers began to have second thoughts about the film. They even attempted to bail on it by selling the screenplay to another studio. In the end, the production went through, though with a smaller budget.
Fess Parker said, “[Them!] was so well received as an early science fiction picture that it broke all records 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.