Filmsite Movie Review
The Thing (From Another World) (1951)
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The Thing (From Another World) (1951) is an influential and taut horror and science-fiction B-film hybrid, loosely based (by screenwriter Charles Lederer) on the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. (with pen-name pseudonym Don A. Stuart). The novella was first published in August 1938, in the popular US sci-fi magazine Astounding Science Fiction. The story was also reprinted in a 1948 collection of Campbell's work, titled Seven Tales of Science Fiction.

UFO sightings and reports of flying saucers or strange visitors from outer space (actual events that occurred in 1947 included Roswell, NM, and Mount Rainier in WA) found their way into Hollywood features as allegories of the Cold War. Director Christian Nyby's (his directorial debut film) and producer Howard Hawks' sole science-fiction film was one of the earliest examples of an alien invader feature film (earlier serials included Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers), and featured Hollywood filmdom's first sci-fi space monster.

Fraught with horrors all around, science fiction films reflected the collective unconscious and often cynically commented upon political powers, threats and evils that surrounded us (alien forces were often a metaphor for Communism), and the dangers of aliens taking over our minds and territory, or completely obliterating the human race.

Many other sci-fi films of the 1950s, including Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), Invaders From Mars (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) portrayed the human race as victimized and at the mercy of externalized, mysterious, hostile, and unfriendly forces - invading aliens. Cold War politics (and fear of the 'bomb') undoubtedly contributed to suspicion, anxiety, and paranoia of anything "other" - or "un-American."

The film was known by both of its titles: The Thing, and The Thing From Another World. According to producer Howard Hawks, the subtitle was added to avoid confusion with a novelty hit single titled "The Thing" (sung by Phil Harris) that became the #1 single in December, 1950 according to Billboard magazine. [Note: In the song, the word 'thing' was never spoken, but replaced with three percussive knocks whenever there was a reference to an object found in a large wooden box on the beach.] Although the popular song had no relation to the movie, its concurrent release and rampant play on the radio helped to create market recognition.

It was expected to be a low-budget, B/W film, but the production costs skyrocketed due to weather issues on location in Montana, and delays in the schedule. The eventual budget was $1.1 million. It was a tightly-paced tale told to illustrate how scientists had foolishly meddled with things that they shouldn't have - causing further catastrophe. US science researchers and military officers symbolically awakened an inactive foreign 'sleeper cell or agent' that then infiltrated into their midst and terrorized them. And even then, one of the main scientists was willing to betray his colleagues by siding with the alien monster for research purposes, claiming that the vegetative, multiplying organism was worthy of being preserved for further study and communication. The four most memorable moments included: the discovery of the shape of the frozen and embedded spacecraft, the scene of the Thing set ablaze with kerosene, the Thing's electrocution in the hallway, and the final chilling warning/bulletin radioed from the North Pole.

The film effectively focused on character interaction among its ensemble cast, with natural and rapid-fire dialogue between many characters, a convincing-looking and beseiged remote location, red herrings to create suspense, few ambiguous glimpses of "The Thing" until late into the film, appropriate scientific jargon, and the slow menace of the threatening creature. It also clearly delineated the various interest groups in the film - each with a different and often conflicting perspective (it was essentially a brains vs. brawn struggle): between the military (and a sidekick news-reporter) and science researchers (led by a mad scientist). Threatening weather only appeared after the escape of the UFO's occupant, the Thing - infused with only raw intellect and no emotion - that indiscriminately stalked the base's inhabitants. A strong-willed, saucy character named Nikki Nicholson (former fashion model Margaret Sheridan in her film debut) was the sole available female amongst all the male characters, providing intelligence and progressive sexuality. The Thing borrowed authentic scientific equipment from Cal Tech (the Geiger-Muller counter, for example) to supplement its crude special effects, and electronics companies were consulted before filming.

Other variations of the alien invasion theme were later found in It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) (with an alien invader onboard a Mars-bound spaceship) (the premise for Alien (1979)), and Destination Inner Space (1966) (about an extraterrestrial terrorizing a deep-sea research station).

There were a few scary and sensational taglines for the sci-fi-horror tale:

  • Natural or Supernatural?
  • It Creeps...It Crawls...It Strikes Without Warning!
  • Nothing In This World Can Match Its Menace!
  • Your Blood Will Turn Ice-Cold!

There were no Academy Award nominations.

It was remade twice:

  • The Thing (1982), by director John Carpenter - a box-office failure starring Kurt Russell, with tremendous special effects; set in the Antarctic (South Pole) amongst a twelve-man US expeditionary crew; it was a mostly faithful, bleak and moody return to the original 1938 source, with homage to the original 1951 film and to Ridley Scott's Alien (1979)
  • The Thing (2011), by Danish director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (his feature debut film) an updated prequel, also set in Antarctica in the year 1982, about a scientific research team composed of thirteen men and two women

Plot Synopsis

The RKO film's title burned itself into recognition - THE THING (subtitled FROM ANOTHER WORLD). The cast credits (shown above a wintry Alaska blizzard scene) - with only technical and production categories, uniquely excluded any mention of the acting cast members (a group of mostly unknown performers).

Air Force Officer's Club - Anchorage, Alaska:

The film opened, in early November, 1950, inside a snowbound Air Force Officers Club in Anchorage, Alaska (outside the blustery temperature was 25 F degrees below zero), where a few of the film's major characters were introduced as they gambled at a game of cards, in particular:

  • Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), an AF military pilot, highly competent, level-headed, tough-as nails, and charming, the film's hero figure
  • Lt. Eddie Dykes (James Young)
  • Lt. Ken Erickson (aka "Mac" or "Macpherson") (Robert Nichols)
  • Ned "Scotty" Scott (Douglas Spencer), a bespectacled Anchorage, AK newspaper journalist, the film's comic-relief character (with a running gag about being perpetually stymied and not getting his story or picture scoop); at one time, he was a front-line war correspondent

Having just arrived, Scotty admitted that he was scouting out his next report: "Looking for a story." The poker card-players chatted briefly about a group of isolated scientists led by main researcher, the cold and smart Dr. Arthur Carrington, stationed 2,000 miles north of Anchorage in a remote Arctic scientific research base in the vicinity of the North Pole (Polar Expedition Six). Macpherson joked about the occupants of the polar base, including "botanists, physicists, electronic..." who were "holding a convention up there." With an anti-science bias, Dykes negatively noted that they were "looking for polar bear tails." Both Macpherson and Dykes teasingly made side references to Hendry's previous girlfriend who was still stationed at the base:

  • Macpherson: "You'll never be able to shoo our Captain southward with his heart wrapped around the North Pole."
  • Dykes: "...a pin-up girl. A very interesting type, too"
  • Macpherson added: "Captain Hendry can give you any data you want on her"

Scotty mentioned Carrington's infamous background - he was previously involved at Bikini - a reference to the nuclear test site at the remote atoll in the Marshall Islands beginning in 1946, that led to the successful development of the war-ending bombs.

Reports of Unidentified Aircraft Crash at North Pole:

The game was interrupted at 8 pm when Captain Hendry was paged to report to Brig. General Fogarty's (David McMahon) office and living quarters. As Hendry left to answer the call, Scotty begged for help: "I gotta get a story someplace." In the office, Gen. Fogarty explained how there was a "queer" transmission from Dr. Carrington's North Pole station 2,000 miles away that a strange aircraft had crashed near the research base:

"Just got a queer message from your picnic party up north, from Dr. Carrington himself. 'Believe an airplane unusual type crashed in our vicinity. Please send facilities to investigate. Most urgent.'"

However, there were no other indications that a US or Canadian plane was missing - but it was speculated by Hendry that the Russians were in the area and it could be a secret Russian aircraft of some type: ("Could be Russians. They're all over the pole like flies").

Reconnaissance Mission to Base in Arctic's North Pole:

Hendry was assigned to lead a reconnaissance mission with a recovery or rescue team: "Take along a dog team or anything you might need for rescue work." The weather report called for an incoming weather front, but it was expected that Hendry could get to the base and back "without bumping into it." Hendry asked if the eager newspaperman Scotty could tag along, and Fogarty grudgingly gave permission: "It's all right with me if you maroon him up there. Now don't get me wrong about who gets marooned." The commander expected that the rescue group would be back by the next day's night, and specified: "Just tell me what you find up there."

During the flight (#191) to the base on a US Air Force twin-propeller plane (with skis), there was a strong 40 mph headwind that delayed their arrival, when they were about 3 hours out. Cargo included a number of husky dogs and sleds. From the base, a radio-call alert was sent by radioman Tex Richards (Nicholas Byron): "We've got some kind of disturbance up here, and it's whacking away at everything." Navigational readings were being affected that had begun the previous evening. Tex cautioned the pilots to home in on the base's signal for their landing.

Upon their arrival in a howling wind, the group of four was greeted and brought inside the base. Scotty was introduced to Mrs. Chapman (Sally Creighton), the tall blonde wife of Dr. Chapman (John Dierkes), and again stated his main purpose: "I hope you have a good story." Chapman mentioned that there were lots of "different ideas" about the identity of the strange flying object (UFO) near the base: "There's been quite an argument about it."

Confrontation About the Past Between Hendry and Nikki:

As Captain Hendry left to speak to Dr. Carrington in his lab, his pals Lt. Dykes and Macpherson wanted to joke and come along, to protectively tell his previous girlfriend at the base, Carrington's science assistant "Nikki" Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), that Hendry had been treated unfairly during their most recent encounter - a failed conquest: "That's an awful way to treat our Captain," but Hendry disallowed them.

In the lab office, Capt. Hendry was greeted by the spunky, strong-minded, independent and sassy Nikki, who realized he was still holding a grudge about their last rendezvous. He complained to her about an embarrassing note she had written and pinned to his chest after he passed out drunk - it was a note that he felt had caused public humiliation:

Hendry: "That was a downright dirty trick you played on me."
Nikki: "Now Pat, don't lose your temper."
Hendry: "Why did you do it? Just tell me why."
Nikki: "Well, your legs aren't very pretty, and..."
Hendry: "You had to write it on a note and put it on my chest. Other people got up before I did."
Nikki: "I'm sorry, Pat, I really didn't mean -- "
Hendry: "Six people read that note before I woke up. Now the whole Air Force is laughing at me."
Nikki: "Not so loud, they'll hear you."
Hendry: "They've probably already heard. The only place it hasn't been is on a billboard."
Nikki: "Ooh, I didn't know you had such a nasty temper."

He approached and backed her into a chair, when she described what had gone wrong. During a binge drinking-date in Anchorage, he had tried to get her drunk to seduce her, but she was able to drink him under the table and hold her liquor better than he could:

Nikki: "Now wait a minute, we had a lot of fun when you were up here. And then when you asked me down to Anchorage, you deliberately fed me a lot of ---."
Hendry: "Tell me something, did you really drink all those drinks?"

And then he inquired why she abruptly left him the next morning after a failed one-night stand due to his boozing blackout - but he had woozily forgotten that she had to return to the base on a cargo plane. She complained about his overly-handsy approach:

"You had moments of kind of making like an octopus. I never saw so many hands in all my life."

He apologized for liking her so much: "My only excuse is that I liked ya - right away. So I started wrong. Can't we begin all over again?" He wished to resume their relationship, but other matters were more pressing at the moment: (Nikki: "We don't have time for that now, anyway").

First View of Dr. Carrington - and Information about the Crash Site:

Hendry was late to meet the lead scientist, Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), who was presented as an effete gentleman (wearing a turtleneck) with blonde, permed hair and a goatee! At first, the humorless doctor remained preoccupied and unaware of Hendry's presence, and dictated to Nikki the readouts from a radar instrument he was viewing - it was monitoring the location of the downed object:

"November 2nd, 11:30 am. Deviation in Sector 19. Continues 12 degrees, 20 minutes east. No lessening or wavering of disturbing element."

A recovery scouting mission composed of the group of scientists and military men was immediately assembled to proceed to the 'crash site' - 48 miles due east from the base. Remaining vague, Carrington would not confirm what he knew about the crash object, but had Nikki read from his first notes (from the previous day) to refresh his memory - the force of the explosion indicated that the now-immobile object was extremely heavy - its weight was approximately 20,000 tons of steel:

"November 1st...6:15 p.m. Sound detectors and seismographs registered explosion due east. At 6:18, magnetometer revealed deviation 12 degrees, 20 minutes east...Such deviation possible only if a disturbing force equivalent to 20,000 tons of steel or iron ore...had become part of the Earth at about a 50-mile radius."

Hendry hypothesized that it was a large meteorite, but Carrington's aide Dr. Will Redding (George Fenneman) explained how a special telescopic camera had picked up evidence of radioactivity, suggesting it wasn't a meteor:

"On the appearance of radioactivity, a Geiger counter trips the release and the cameras function."

The sequence of photographs provided evidence of a number of radar tracks that showed the object (from 6:12 - 6:15 pm) changed course and speed (and flew upwards) a number of times before crashing ("At 6:15 it drops to the Earth and vanishes"). Therefore, it couldn't have been a meteorite: "A meteor might move almost horizontal to the earth but never upward." And it had been computed how distant the object was from the base:

"We have the time of arrival of the sound waves and the detectors. And also the arrival time of the impact waves on the seismograph. By computing the difference, it becomes obvious that they were caused by the traveling object. The distance from here is approximately 48 miles."

Hendry again mentioned his amazement at the weight of the airborne object at approximately 20,000 tons.

A Scouting Mission to the Crash Site:

An expeditionary group flew to the estimated location of the registered crash, to begin to unravel the mystery. During their approach as they flew over the snowscape and a tear-drop shaped area of ice, the aircraft's compass spun wildly ("The compass is in a spin"), and Geiger counters were reading high levels of radiation ("Geiger's up to the top"). They decided to find a smooth landing area a half-mile away. After coming to a stop, the crew on the plane trekked to the site, using dog teams to pull equipment on a sled, while almost everyone walked using snowshoes or cross-country skies. Scotty exclaimed: 'Holy cats! What a weird-Iookin' thing."

At the circular-shaped crash site in the tundra ice, it was hypothesized by Carrington that when the object crash-landed, its engines were so hot that it sunk into the melted ice, and was then covered up by more freezing water:

"Something's melted that surface crust. It's frozen over again into clear ice. The bottle shape apparently was caused by the aircraft first making contact with the Earth out there at the neck of the bottle, sliding toward us and forming that larger area as it came to rest.
"With the engine or engines generating enough heat to melt that path through the crust, then sink beneath the surface."
"What could melt that much ice?"

Scotty asked Dr. Chapman: "Could an airplane melt that much ice?" Chapman replied: "One of our own airplanes generates enough heat to warm a 50-story office building." In the middle of the refrozen ice (where the object had submerged below the surface), only one stabilizer fin (or air foil) vertically protruded up from the radioactive ice and was visible. This evidence established that it was an aircraft of some sort: "It's part of an airfoil. Probably a stabilizer of some sort. It's an airplane, all right." Tools were brought to try to establish the composition of the airfoil.

It was impossible to see very deeply through the ice because it was so dark: "I can't see anything but a dark mass." To establish the actual size and shape of the object, the team spread out and formed a ring around the embedded object. Suddenly, the group experienced an epiphany - a number of them realized that the shape of the craft was circular (actually horseshoe crab-shaped), and believed to be an extra-terrestrial "flying saucer" (or UFO) - an inevitability in the early 1950s!:

"It's round. We finally got one. We found a flying saucer!"

Peering into the dark ice, it was impossible to clearly see very deeply: "Only an outline. Nothing but a dark shape here. Seems perfectly smooth. No doors or windows. I can't see any engine. I doubt if we find anything we call an engine." And the object's airfoil was some "new alloy" of an unknown substance. Filings were taken for analysis. It was impossible to use axes to chop through the solid ice to uncover the saucer, so Hendry's strategy was to melt the ice using thermite bombs. Carrington stated that they would know more about whether the craft was from another planet or not "after we've examined the interior of the aircraft and its occupants, if there are any."

Scotty was anxious to report their discoveries to the press ("What a story! Where's the radio?.... I'm going to send it to the whole world") but was prohibited by Hendry from transmitting "private messages" or sensitive "Air Force information" without further permission from authorities. He protested:

Scotty: "You got your authority in the Constitution of the United States! For your information, it's called freedom of the press, and I'm sending a story, Captain...This is the biggest story since the parting of the Red Sea. You can't cover it up! Think what it means for the world."
Hendry: "I'm not working for the world, Scott. I'm working for the Air Force."

Hendry ordered communications with Gen. Fogarty - to Scott's exasperation: "Get back to the ship and call the camp. Have Tex radio Fogerty. We found a flying saucer, a disc - whatever you call it. Intact. Embedded in the ice. We're gonna try to get it out." Scott asked for clearance and Hendry added: "Ask if Scott can have clearance to send his story."

Failed Efforts to Melt Ice and Expose Aircraft:

With no more than an hour to spare before bad weather set in (with the front coming in from the west, with plummeting temperatures), the thermite bombs were set to be detonated to melt the ice and free the craft - one was positioned by the stabilizer and another one on the far side of the spacecraft. Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) would be used to remove the ice and uncover the saucer in 30 seconds. The thermite bomb at the stabilizer would be detonated first. As everyone backed away, Carrington was hopeful:

"A few minutes from now, we may have the key to the stars. A million years of history are waiting for us in that ice."

Their efforts to uncover the saucer failed when the thermite bomb explosion caused fires ("It's burning under the ice"), and the scientists were dismayed as they watched the craft self-destruct with secondary charges ("That last explosion was the engine") - and then disintegrate:

"It's all gone. Secrets that might've given us a new science. Gone."

Scotty added an epitaph: "The greatest discovery in history up in flames. Turning a new civilization into a 4th of July piece."

The strange metal alloy used in the ship's construction had reacted negatively to the thermite. However, just a few moments later, hopes were raised when Cpl. Barnes (William Self), with a Geiger counter, detected a second object with residual radioactivity: "I'm getting something over here." Carrington was hopeful: "Probably a fragment from the saucer." Scotty added: "We may salvage something yet." When they investigated more closely and discovered the hottest radioactive spot beneath the ice ("Here's where it's coming from"), they believed that they had found an eight-foot alien-humanoid life form encased in a frozen block of ice - possibly the ship's pilot?:

"It looks like a man. It's got legs and a head. I can see 'em. Yeah! He must be over 8 feet long. Somebody got out of that saucer. Got out, or was thrown out. Then frozen fast before he could get clear. Man from Mars."

Rather than risk the object's destruction again with thermite, the group used axes to extract the frozen humanoid shape. They brought the complete block of ice on a sled back to the plane, and then flew back to the research station's base headquarters.

Meanwhile, there was a Defense Department bulletin-proclamation from the Office of Public Information, printed in an AIR FORCE Magazine, regarding claims of credibility regarding the presence of UFOs, dated December 27, 1949. It was read to the cockpit crew by Lt. Macpherson:

"The Air Force has discontinued investigating and evaluating reported flying saucers on the basis that there is no evidence... The Air Force said that all evidence indicates that the reports of unidentified flying objects are the result of - One: Misinterpretation of various conventional objects....Second: A mild form of mass hysteria....Third: That they're jokes."

The scientists were skeptical that the US government might be covering up the discovery of evidence (such as they had just found) that would prove them wrong about their discovery of a UFO (and possibly an extra-terrestrial creature).

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