Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Keep Watching the Sky!

I was eight years old the first time I saw The Thing from Another World (1951, directed by Christian Nyby). It played in the middle of a Saturday afternoon block of science fiction films on an independent TV station out of Denver. If memory serves (unreliable at this distance in my life), it was sandwiched between The Neanderthal Man and Tarantula. For all of Tarantula's virtues, The Thing was very much the cream of this crop. I knew its quality even then, and it's a film that rewards an adult viewer maybe even more than a monster kid. When I was talking about the film last year with a friend, we both were struck by the idea that all of the characters seemed to have a purpose in the film with their own motivations and inner lives. I went further by suggesting that, unlike the characters in many science fiction films, the characters in The Thing seem particularly adult to me. I take that to be the influence of Howard Hawks and Charles Lederer (and the unbilled Ben Hecht). This is a grim world of men--aviators and scientists--tasked with doing a job. Like Hawks's own films as a director, it's a film that builds communities in its shot compositions and compresses the dialogue in overlapping salvos that make its characters seem world weary and sly at the same time. The other thing that eight year old me noticed was that the monster wasn't so great. It seemed then and seems now to be a Frankenstein rip-off and not a particularly good one. It doesn't help that that's not the monster one finds in the film's source text, nor the one in the film's various remakes. That's why its star has dimmed over the years. Possibly, that's why it has been all but eclipsed by the 1982 remake. In common with the 1982 film, though, it is a portrait of its time etched in microcosm.

The story is familiar by now. Captain Patrick Hendry of the United States Air Force and his crew are assigned to fly to a research station above the arctic circle to investigate a phenomenon reported by the scientists there. Along for the ride is reporter Ned Scott, who is kicking around looking for a story. Upon their arrival, they discover that their instruments--particularly their compass--have become unreliable due to the presence of a mass of metal that has fallen to earth. The scientists point out to them that "fallen" is the wrong word. Piloted is more like it. They suspect a UFO. Also at the research station is Hendry's on-again off-again girlfriend, Nikki Nicholson, who delights in teasing Hendry unmercifully. She's the secretary for the head scientist, Dr. Arthur Carrington, who is brilliant but distrustful of the military. The crew and the scientists and Scott journey to where the UFO came down and discover that it has embedded itself in the ice. The part that protrudes from the ice is made from an alloy unknown to science. The crew endeavours to free the craft from the ice, but the thermite bombs they use to melt the ice set the ship ablaze and it explodes, leaving no trace. However, the pilot of the ship is also embedded in the ice, away from the vessel. The crew chops him out in a block of ice they can return to base. Carrington wants to thaw the pilot for immediate examination, but Hendry refuses and puts the base under military command. Carrington's colleague, Dr. Chapman agrees with Hendry, cautioning that the alien may be carrying pathogens against which humans have no immunity or that the alien may have no immunity to earthbound pathogens. Hendry tries to radio for instructions, but inclement weather interferes with the radio's ability to transmit. Meanwhile, one of the men tasked with guarding the alien leaves an electric blanket on the ice because he doesn't like looking at it. It thaws. The alien reveals itself to be hostile. Carrington demands to communicate with the alien because it must be wiser than humans to cross the gulf of space, and his research determines that it is a plant-like organism, carrying seeds that can be grown into new aliens when fed human blood. Meanwhile, Hendry and his crew fight a desperate battle with the alien, who seems both indestructible and capable of regenerating grievous harm to itself. When Hendry discovers Carrington's conclusions about the alien, he realizes that it is an existential threat to human kind. But Carrington believes the alien must be preserved even at the cost of their own lives. Science demands a sacrifice. And the reporter, Scott? He's on to the story of the millennium if he can ever contact the rest of the world to file it...

It's not hard to see the lingering trauma of World War II in The Thing From Another World, nor the paranoia that followed the U.S.S.R's detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1949, an event many Americans thought couldn't happen for decades, if ever. This is one of the first cinematic iterations of Cold War science fiction, a theme that would run through almost all of the science fiction movies that would follow. The central "heroes" of the film are military men. Like the heroes in other Howard Hawks films, they are cynical and pragmatic, under no illusions that their jobs will not get them killed and doing it anyway. This is an archetype that derives from WWII propaganda in films like Air Force and The Sands of Iwo Jima, and it's one that persists in films until the Vietnam war. The scientists are split. Carrington is the classic scientist as appeaser, maybe the scientist as traitor. He's styled differently from his peers, wearing a fur hat that looks vaguely Russian and a Van Dyke beard that's vaguely demonic. The urge to share military secrets--and the existence of a UFO and alien pilot in this film is absolutely a military secret during most of its length--plays to the grievance of a nation whose trump card, the atomic bomb, was given to its enemies by subversives. It's not hard to see the Rosenbergs in Carrington. At the very least, he's coded as a Communist. When Nikki tells Hendry that Carrington "Doesn't think like us," she's not just talking about his scientific genius. The film's counterbalance to Carrington isn't Hendry, though. It's Dr. Chapman, who is the voice of reason among the scientists. Like the military men, he's a pragmatist. He's the kind of man whose genius works on behalf of the state, on behalf of the military. I'd like to think that Chapman is a stand-in for Oppenheimer, maybe, but he could just as easily be Edward Teller. The film hand-waves Carrington's treason at the end with the excuse that he's overworked and hasn't slept in days, and the military grants him amnesty and forgiveness at the end of the film through their mouthpiece, the reporter, but is he really forgiven? The film exhorts the viewer to keep watching the skies, but we must also keep watching each other, too. It internalizes xenophobia in the best tradition of red scares throughout the 20th century and on into the 21st.

This film does not have an a-list cast, but it does okay. Part of this is the writing, which has snappy dialogue in the best traditions of screwball comedies. Director Christian Nyby, working under the gimlet eye of Hawks, overlaps and speeds-up that dialogue along the lines of His Girl Friday. I mentioned that the characters seem like adults, and that's definitely true of the relationship between Hendry and Nikki, whose romance is only barely chaste, and probably isn't really. At one point Nikki ties Hendry to a chair to keep his hands off of her, while teasing him with sexual banter and I'll be damned if I know how they got this overt bondage game past the censors. This is a relationship between people comfortable with who they are and with each other. You can sense a history extending before the start of the film in all of their scenes together, even without the film telling you about it (the film tells you about it anyway, just to make sure). This is surely Kenneth Tobey's finest hour in a long and distinguished career. He's affable and competent, the kind of commander who reassures his troops and gets the best out of them. This is certainly the role for which Margaret Sheridan is best known. She's a type in this film, the "Hawksian" woman who gives as good as she gets from the men. The film doesn't do her a lot of favors as far as her role in the story. I can envision a parody of The Thing in which all she does is show up and ask if anyone wants a cup of coffee. But she's not a shrinking violet. She never has hysterics. In her own quiet way, she's as competent as the men, which is something Hawks admired in women.

The supporting players--many of them unbilled--get their moments, too. The scene where MacPherson (Robert Nichols) reads the Air Force's official conclusions regarding the existence of UFOs is a droll bit of meta-commentary, as is his desire to read a "nice quiet horror story" while guarding the block of ice. Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer) is a familiar kind of character from Hawks's other films: the hard-boiled reporter on the trail of a scoop. He gets to be the audience's surrogate for receiving exposition, but he's cynical about it and none too happy about being silenced by the military. Still, he gets the film's most famous line as the movie comes to a close. Other character bits are sprinkled throughout (the general's repeated emphatic demand that his visitors close the door when they come for their orders; the ribbing Hendry's co-pilot gives him over his romantic foibles; even the soldier who puts the blanket over the block of ice because the alien gives him the creeps). It all makes for a world in microcosm, something the best science fiction films of the 50s learn from The Thing and the element that's lacking in the ones that are less than good.

An audience seventy odd years later will find a lot to fault in the film's science fictional ideas, but even here, there are images that are indelible. The scene where the scientists and soldiers form a circle defining the shape of the flying saucer is so baked into the collective massmind that the 1982 remake restages it (Carpenter also included the scene on a television in Halloween). When I was a kid, I found the baby things that Carrington grows on a diet of human blood to be the creepiest damned things; they're still a thrill as an adult. The main creature, though? That hasn't aged well at all. Even in 1951 that was a design that was twenty years out of date, clearly plagiarized from James Whale's Frankenstein. There is a certain irony in the fact that in Frankenstein, it's lightning that gives The Creature life, while in The Thing, it is lightning that reduces it to ash. The science fiction writers of the day didn't much like The Thing from Another World, perhaps for the same reasons a contemporary audience is sometimes unimpressed. The monster doesn't hold up. The monster one finds in John W. Campbell's novella, "Who Goes There?," is a shapeshifting telepath, an alien that the filmmakers may have decided was too horrible and too technically complicated to create on screen. The 1982 film provides that monster, though, and shows up the 1951 film's paucity of imagination. It's also possible that the science fiction writers of the time were loath to get on John W. Campbell's bad side given his position as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, the preeminent sci fi market of its day. You never know.

I should pause here for a bit to mention that "Who Goes There?" is a terrible story. I mean, the raw material is strong, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention that that raw material was already out there in Lovecraft's At The Mountains of Madness and "The Whisperer in Darkness," among others. Campbell's prose is godawful and his characters are as deep as a sheen of water on concrete. Never has a piece of literature benefited so much from its film adaptations as this story. Even the much derided 2010 version is better. So make of that what you will.

For what it's worth, I think The Thing From Another World is a pretty good film in spite of its drawbacks. The strength of its filmmaking kept it in the bright circle of critical acclaim until well after the release of Carpenter's remake, until that film's reputation spread through the video revolution. It's certainly a film that fits into the canon of Hawks's films no matter the name on the director's chairs. Sometimes it's the producer who is the auteur, after all. In any event, it's a film I revisit with pleasure. It gets the human beings right and it has its finger on the pulse of its zeitgeist, and that's good enough for me.

Christianne Benedict on Patreon
This blog is supported on Patreon by wonderful subscribers. If you like what I do, please consider pledging your own support. It means the world to me.

No comments: