Stationed in chilly
Alaska, Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and
his military aircrew are sent to a research station near the Arctic
Circle. Tagging along is newspaperman Ned "Scotty" Scott
(Douglas Spencer) who's looking for a story at the North Pole and hopes this
call from a scientific research team will be it. Hendry has been sent to the
station after a request for plane transport from the world renowned Professor
Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornwaithe). The scientists are excited because of a
magnetic disturbance and the sighting of a falling object that might be a
meteor. Once the group gets to the landing site of the object they quickly
realize that what they've found sunk into the ice is flying saucer! They
attempt to melt the thickening ice around the craft but accidentally destroy it
only to find the occupant frozen in ice several yards away. They chop the
eight-foot tall biped out of the ground and cart him back to the research
station where Hendry decides to keep their visitor on ice (literally) until
higher brass arrives. But when a storm delays the general's trip and an
electric blanket thaws out the E.T., circumstances change quickly. The visitor
from another world (James Arness) turns out to be an evolved piece of
vegetation that feeds on blood and intends to conquer Earth for its own kind!
Released at the beginning of the 1950s, The Thing's box-office success was the spur that drove the sci-fi/horror film genre for most of the decade. High-minded science fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still were pushed aside for an onslaught of invading creatures, slimy mutations and action. All of the various science-gone-mad and giant bug films that marched across drive-in screens for the next 8 years could be traced back to this one movie. All the classic conflicts of science vs. the military, intellect vs. emotion and compassion vs. violence are perfectly articulated in The Thing (even if the military is given an unfair advantage). These conflicts would continue to inform science fiction films, from the best (Them!) to the worst (your choice here), until the ideas were reduced to nothing but clichés. Of course the '50s were fertile ground for the kind of terror these stories thrust into the mass consciousness. The nuclear age was newborn, with no one really knowing what might come of man's splitting of the atom; reports of unidentified flying objects were making the news regularly. The next obvious step was to posit a sinister explanation for the UFOs and link it to the general public fear of invasion (if not by communists then walking vegetables were close enough). Since The Thing is a thriller, the rational scientific men who want to study and learn from the alien are reduced to the role of decrying violence against such a monumental discovery. Somehow I don't think a movie about a friendly alien vegetable seeking peaceful coexistence would have fired the public's imagination as much, but half a century later it's possible to see the scientists' point of view a little clearer.
The Thing was adapted from John W. Campbell's short story 'Who Goes There?' but really only the idea of an alien invader and the arctic setting were used by Howard Hawks and his screen writers. The real joy of the film is in watching another great Hawks ensemble cast enact a sharp tale in the most entertaining fashion possible. It's a shame that Hawks' lack of respect for the science fiction genre is evidenced by the fact that he allowed Christian Nyby take director's credit for The Thing. It's now known that this was done so that Nyby could get into the Director's Guild, but it clearly shows that Hawks didn't take the film very seriously as part of his career. Luckily for us he gave the film his usual 100% when on the job, as did the entire cast. There isn't a weak performance in the film, with my favorite being from genre stalwart Kenneth Tobey. Playing one of the few leading roles of his career, Tobey is simply great — whether he's trying to romance the lovely Margaret Sheridan or giving rapid-fire orders to his men while under attack from the murderous carrot. If you dig this movie and want to see more of the underrated Mr. Tobey I can recommend the Blu-Ray of It Came from Beneath the Sea in which he has another good role up against a gigantic octopus (courtesy of Ray Harryhausen's marvelous effects). The disc offers the film up in a Harryhausen supervised colorized version as well as the original black & white.