This is the first in my new monthly series on classic black-and-white movies. The Thing (from Another World) takes place near the North Pole and features future Gunsmoke star James Arness as a large, homely alien.
By Glen Sparks
The newly formed U.S. Air Force opened Project Sign in January 1948. The mission? Research a rash of UFO sightings by supposed eyewitnesses from across the country.
Air Force officials closed the project one year later. Investigators found not one alien and not one flying saucer. Howard Hawks (Red River, Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep) and Christian Nyby made The Thing (from Another World) in 1951, anyway.
Based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella, Who Goes There?, the movie version was produced by Hawks’ production company, Winchester Pictures Corp., and released by RKO Pictures. It was a big hit. Bosley Crowther, a critic for The New York Times, wrote that “Mr. Hawks has developed a movie that is generous with thrills and chills.”
In this classic sci-fi thriller, a spaceship hurtles to Earth and crashes into a bed of ice near the North Pole. A team of service men, scientists and even a newsman go to investigate. Unfortunately, they blast the ship to bits by mistake.
“The greatest discovery in history (goes) up in flames,” says wise-cracking reporter “Scotty” (played by Douglas Spencer).
The team does manage to haul one freeze-dried survivor back to the base. Is he (it?) friend or foe? Hint: Remember, this is ‘50s black & white sci-fi. Space aliens and humans do not play well together.
Trouble begins as soon as the Thing’s icy tomb melts, and it gets moving again. The lumbering brute (a young, nearly unrecognizable James Arness) grunts and growls; it muscles man and sled dog aside. To make matters even worse, the Thing brushes off 45-caliber bullets.
Oh, and the Thing really isn’t a type of animal. Internally, it resembles a plant, the scientists conclude after studying tissue samples taken from the creature’s hacked-off hand. The Thing quickly regenerates dead tissue, similar to a garden vegetable.
“It sounds like you’re trying to describe some sort of super carrot,” Scotty suggests.
Yes, that’s exactly right, replies Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). The Thing shows no pleasure and is devoid of emotion. Killing a human being is simply something that it must do to survive. (The Thing lives off blood.)
Our heroes need a plan. Do they destroy the Thing? How? The generals (who sit behind desks located far from the base and don’t comprehend the danger) issue orders to keep the creature safe. Dr. Carrington agrees that this is the smart plan. Capt. Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), a pilot and leader of the military team, sees no way out of this predicament except to kill the dangerous guest.
Science gets shoved aside in The Thing (in a few cases, quite literally). Men in leather jackets and military insignia do the heavy lifting in this film.
Dr. Carrington at one point insists that the world must learn about this great alien discovery. Hendry isn’t buying it, even as the Air Force orders the crew not to harm “your prisoner.”
Carrington: “You can’t ignore orders.”
Hendry: “Testify to that at my court-martial.”
Following several failed attempts, the service men figure out a way to bring the movie to a shocking finale.
Scotty concludes by finally getting his news report out to the world, via radio. “Watch the skies everywhere,” he pleads in conclusion. “Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”
The Thing moves along at a brisk pace and offers plenty of suspense and action, like a typical Hawks picture. It includes lots of snappy dialogue, like a typical Hawks picture. This has led to a big debate: Who really directed The Thing?
That depends on the source. Nyby is listed as director in the credits, while Hawks is listed as producer. Tobey insisted in Hostile Aliens, Hollywood and Today’s News by Melvin Matthews that Hawks directed the movie. “Hawks directed it, all except one scene,” he said. Cornthwaite disagreed. “Chris always deferred to Hawks, as well he should,” the actor said in an LA Times article. “Maybe because he did defer to him, people misinterpreted it. … When people ask me, I say, ‘Chris was the director, Hawks was the producer.’”
Nyby had edited several movies for Hawks, including Red River. The Thing was his first directorial effort. By most accounts, Hawks was on the set every day. (Part of the movie was filmed at Glacier National Park in Montana; much of it was filmed inside a large ice-storage plant in Los Angeles.) Nyby, who went on to direct several more movies and TV shows (The Twilight Zone, Kojak, The Rockford Files, etc.), insists he was in charge.
“Did Hawks direct it?” Nyby said in Cinefantastique magazine. “That’s one of the most inane and ridiculous questions I’ve ever heard, and people keep asking.”
Yes, Nyby said, he did make the movie in Hawks’ style. “This is a man I studied and wanted to be like,” he said. “You would certainly emulate and copy the master you’re sitting under, which I did.”