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The Thing: I Think They Were Right, Captain
The recent release of sci-fi comedies like “Paul” and the upcoming prequel to John Carpenter’s “The Thing” has led me to look by at the bygone days of yesteryear and look for the quintessential sci-fi classic that these films are based on. And one doesn’t have to look much beyond the original incarnation of “The Thing” that was made in 1951.
The full title, “The Thing From Another World” starts with the intrepid reporter Ned Scott (a perfect Douglas Spencer) fighting though a snowstorm in Anchorage and entering the officer’s club of the local air force base. He meets Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew playing cards. Soon enough Captain Henry is sent to a remote scientific outpost in the North Pole, the intrepid reporter coming along, to help the scientists there investigate an mysterious crash site of an object.
They discover the object is a flying saucer and their attempts to remove it from the ice results in the destruction of the spacecraft. However, they do discover a survivor frozen in the ice and quickly take him back to the outpost. And before you can say, “Look out behind you!” our visitor from another world escapes and threatens not only the occupants of the outpost, but perhaps the entire world as well.
A recognized classic when released in 1951, this is one of those films that just keeps getting better with each viewing. Ken Tobey is letter perfect as the Captain who may not know everything (there are a few great comic scenes where his is a little confused by what is going on), but is a strong, respected leader who takes command. He is challenged by the leader of the science outpost, the much heralded Dr. Carrington (a little aloof, but very brainy Robert Cornthwaite) who insists despite great evidence to the contrary that the visitor can be reasoned with.
What elevates this film above the usual schlock-horror movie fair is the fine comic scenes, particularly the banter which gives all the characters more personality. Take for example the early scene at the officer’s club when the Captain is being gently tweaked by his flight crew about his affection for the secretary who’s stationed at the outpost. In about 20 seconds you not only laugh, but get all the background info you need to carry on with the film.
And speaking of the secretary, she’s played to perfection by Margaret Sheridan, a perky and worldly secretary if she’s telling the truth who finds the Captain rather attractive herself. They share a very funny scene when they “repeat” their first date only she ties the Captain’s hands behind his back.
There are several powerful visual scenes in “The Thing”, in particular when the scientist and crew try to determine the shape of the object hidden under the ice, they fan out (we see them in a wide shot) and form a nearly perfect circle. That image is now iconic and the accompanying theme music enhances the power of that single shot.
The use of light and shadows feature prominently in the film, particularly when the Thing breaks into one of the rooms and is confronted by Hendry and his crew, who have dimmed the lights and then set the Thing on fire.
Another great scene that combines comic banter with a real jolt happens after the “Thing” is reported to be in the greenhouse section of the outpost, before opening the door the Captain asks the crew chief Bob (a sly Dewey Martin, who’s great) if he’s ready, Bob cocks his machine gun and softly replies, “No, but you can open the door.” The Captain quickly opens the door to reveal the Thing standing right in the doorway. The Captain just avoids a vicious swipe by the Thing as he slams the door on the creature’s arm.
Much has been made by the patriotic nature of the film, in particular the stalwart Captain and his crew siding against the arguments for “science” by Dr. Carrington, as in “brawn beats brains” every time. This is probably a nod to Hawks’ own view of what he felt made Americans strong. Considering this film was made during the Korean War, such patriotic viewpoints should be looked at under those circumstances.
The quick banter is a trademark of many Howard Hawks films, only he serves in the producer role in this film as Christian Nyby takes over the director’s choirs. And while there were plenty of rumors about Hawks directing the film himself, I did read an interview from James Arness, who played “The Thing”, that Nyby was the one who called the shots.
And speaking of James Arness, he was reportedly upset enough with how he looked and appeared in the movie that he didn’t even show up for the premiere. But a couple of years ago I read in the aforementioned interview that more people ask him about that role than they did his seemingly far more famous one as Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke”. What makes Arness’ character work is partly his great natural height. At 6’ 7” he towers over everyone else in the film and the fact that there are no close-ups of his face. In fact, only near the end of the film do we even get a decent look at his facial features.
Even the ending of the film contains the iconic line, “Watch the Skies.” It’s become a popular phrase that has cropped up in other sci-fi films, particularly “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.
All in all this is one great, enjoyable film that can be viewed by all save perhaps for the very young. While the film is pretty tame in terms of graphic horror by today’s standards, it does contain a few good shocks that might frighten the little ones.