Legend has it that 1951’s The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director Christian Nyby but by the film’s producer, celebrated filmmaker Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred—the film’s controlled atmosphere of dread, as well as its abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players, seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Yet regardless of the principal author’s identity, what’s most remarkable about The Thing (which was remade in 1982 by John Carpenter) is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. A group of soldiers led by no-nonsense Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) travel to the North Pole to examine an aircraft crash located near a scientific outpost. What they discover is a flying saucer and a sole extraterrestrial pilot, whom they bring back to the lab, frozen in a block of ice, for further study. It’s not long before the Thing (James Arness)—essentially a super-intelligent vegetable man with the ability to both regenerate lost limbs and reproduce through spreading seeds—thaws out and begins to wreak havoc, although Nyby (or, um, Hawks) wisely maintain tension by keeping the creature hidden from view and focusing on the clash between mad scientist Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) and Captain Hendry. Carrington deduces that the Thing feels no emotional or sexual pleasure and, thus, is “our superior in every way,” while Captain Hendry sees the visitor as merely a monster bent on harvesting the planet for mankind’s blood. An early remark by one military official concerning the burgeoning Soviet presence in the North Pole reinforces the Thing’s allegorical status as communist “other” (one can deduce that Hendry fears the creature not only because it’s emotionless and sexless, but also godless). The conflict between Hendry and Carrington is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior.
- Warner Bros.
- 87 min
- Christian Nyby
- Charles Lederer
- Margaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey, Robert Cornthwaite, Douglas Spencer, James R. Young, James Arness
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