Science Fiction Films of the 1950s: Them




One of the main themes that ran through many science fiction films of the 1950s was the combined fear of nuclear war, nuclear explosions, and fallout. This atomic fear is one large terror that haunted the Cold War world and was developed in many ways in science fiction films.



One such expression was in the advent of the giant bug movies, which addressed the question of what might happen to  the world after radiation had somehow been released either through detonation of weapons or by accident. In Japan, the consequences of having been the only nation to have suffered the devastation of nuclear bombs, saw the emergence of giant monsters like Godzilla, often seen destroying Japanese cities–a very direct metaphor for nuclear explosions. In America, a similar motif was seen in the proliferation of Giant Bug movies.  This might be considered an early example of ecological concern in cinema.


Them, a 1954 production by Warner Bros, starred James Arness and James Whitmore. In the beginning of the movie, a little girl was found alone and traumatized, saying only “them, them.” The girl was rescued, but during the investigation, other people were found who have been killed, and the perpetrators were discovered to be giant ants.  The monsters were created when normal ants came upon sugar that had been irradiated by atomic weapons testing.  They reached the height and size of small military tanks and were ferocious killers and hunters.  This film made Americans think about the potential risks from insects that would normally have been viewed, at the worst, as mere pests at picnics.  Radiation had the capacity to distort they way we  interacted with the world.

Eventually, the creatures were hunted down and destroyed by the use of flame-throwers.  As would be the motif in most of the giant bug movies, the world was saved by using technology against technologically-created creatures.  At the conclusion of the movie, a warning was given in solemn tones that we have entered a new world in the atomic age, and we have to be aware of its dangers. These are themes that would be repeated frequently in other giant bug movies.

If you have not seen this one, it is worth a look.  It may not be the best film of all time, but it does introduce important Cold War themes into science fiction cinema. These are themes which frightened many people.




30 thoughts on “Science Fiction Films of the 1950s: Them

  1. Charles, I think you’re right about the film feeling lesser than some of the other “big bug” films of the 50’s. Yet, in may ways it did usher in that kind of film. For a long time it was notable if only because of James Arness—Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke fame—but the’re many other familiar names and faces in this film. I’ve always been a fan of actor’s James Whitmore and Edmund Gwynn, but how about Fess Parker (Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett), and Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock of Star Trek), with the wonderfully reliable William Shallert (Patty Duke’s father on her show) and some great character support from Richard Deacon, Dub Taylor, and Lawrence Dobkin to name a few.

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  2. It was a strange time during the 50s. The US was getting fat and sassy from rebuilding a demolished world, and as one of the few winners of WWII, had every reason to feel as cocky as one of the icons of that age, Bugs Bunny did as he vanquished every foe. Aliens from outer space? No big deal — Bugs mopped up poor Marvin the Martian with ease and a few wise-cracks.

    And yet, there was a nuclear Soviet Union threatening to bury us, and a restless Third World determined to overthrow Western hegemony. No wonder we turned into manic depressives.

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  3. Saw this movie back when I was 11 years old. It must have been 2000. It started playing on the TV while I was waiting for my mom to pick me up from school. Only time in my life I wished she was late. I begged her to get the tape, and it became one of my favorites growing up.

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  4. Nice that you put it into the context of the Cold War. Generations grew up having nightmares as children over their world that could end at any moment. It was the kind of thing you couldn’t think about too much, or your mind would shut down and refuse to think at all.

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  5. I grew up in the 50s and 60s so I was aware of the threat, but somehow never associated it with the movies I saw. Then again, I didn’t go to the movies very often. I do, however, still remember The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Don’t know how or where it fit into the Cold War theme but it scared me silly…and probably began my love affair with sci-fi. 😀

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