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THE THING 
(From Another World (1951)

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“I bring you a warning. Every one of you listening to my voice, tell the world. Tell this to everybody wherever they are: watch the skies! Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”

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Director: Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks (uncredited)
Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Robert Cornthwaite, Margaret Sheridan, Douglas Spencer, James R. Young, Robert Nichols, William Self, Dewey Martin, Nicholas Byron, Paul Frees, David McMahon, James Arness
Screenplay: Charles Lederer, based upon a story by John W. Campbell Jr

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Synopsis:  A team of scientists stationed at the North Pole reports to an airforce base in Anchorage that something, possibly an unusual type of plane, has crashed in their vicinity. Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew are sent to investigate, taking with them reporter Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer). On route, the radio operator at the camp, Tex Richards (Nicholas Byron), informs the crew of a strange atmospheric disturbance, and warns them that they are off course. At the camp, while the crew talks to the scientists, Hendry slips away to renew his acquaintance with “Nikki” Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), who is the assistant to the chief scientist, Dr Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). Nikki takes Hendry to Carrington, who tells him that whatever crashed in the ice weighed more than 20,000 tons. Moreover, the scientists’ readings prove that the object had the ability to change direction, indicating that it was not a meteor. The airforce crew, along with the scientists and Scott, flies out to the crash site. As they approach, their compass goes haywire, and high radioactivity is detected. The men find that the crashed object was hot enough when it hit to melt the surrounding ice, which then re-froze over it. A fin, perhaps a stabiliser, is jutting out of the ice. Dr Vorhees (Paul Frees) reports that it is made of no metal with which he is familiar. Trying to determine the size and shape of the object, the men spread out at its perimeter, staring at each other in astonishment when they realise that the object is circular. Following standard procedure, Hendry has his men plant thermite bombs around the buried ship, so that they can melt the ice covering it. The bombs detonate as planned, but suddenly everything goes wrong, and the ship is destroyed in a tremendous explosion. The area is checked for residual radioactivity, and a hot spot located. Incredibly, buried in the ice is a figure not human, but humanoid…. A storm is building. The men chop out a block of ice containing the strange being, take it back to camp and place it in a storage area. The scientists demand to be allowed to thaw and examine the creature, but Hendry refuses to do anything without express orders. Carrington is furious, insisting that Hendry has no authority over his team. The imperturbable Hendry has a window smashed in the storeroom to maintain freezing temperatures, and places an armed guard on the find. After a time, the crew chief (Dewey Martin) reports to Hendry that Lieutenant McPherson (Robert Nichols), who has been left on guard, is feeling agitated at being alone with the trapped creature, as its open eyes are visible through the ice. Hendry agrees to the watches being shortened. Later that night, while on guard, Corporal Barnes (William Self) also becomes uneasy at his situation, and covers the block of ice with a blanket so that he cannot see its contents. However, the blanket is electric, and it is on. Unnoticed by Barnes, the ice begins to melt….

Comments: While science fiction literature had long dealt with the concept of life in outer space, and even with the possibility of an alien invasion of Earth (Wells’ “War Of The Worlds” was published in 1898), it was several decades before motion pictures were willing to tackle such subjects in a serious manner. The moment eventually came, however, and in 1951’s The Thing, cinema-goers first witnessed a recognisably alien being setting foot upon this planet. Historically, it is not difficult to understand why the time for such a film should finally have been considered ripe. Not only, as the saying goes, was the Cold War beginning to hot up, but the previous few years had seen a new expression enter the English language: flying saucer. In 1947 – just one month before something crashed near Roswell, New Mexico – a pilot reported a formation of nine mysterious objects in the sky over Mount Rainier, Washington. The eyewitness described the objects as thin and tapered, but also described their motion as being “like a saucer, if you skipped it across the water”. The journalists who reported the incident latched onto this phrase and, ignoring the pilot’s actual statement, dubbed the craft “flying saucers” – a term which swiftly entered the collective consciousness. Belief in these strange flying machines was widespread, although most people considered them to be of American origin – or perhaps, more ominously, as coming from behind the Iron Curtain. It is this latter notion, and the unease that it generated amongst the American people, that fuels The Thing, which is a film whose time had truly come. In the late 1940s – possibly even inspired by the flying saucer furore – producer-director Howard Hawks acquired the rights to “Who Goes There?”, a story by John W. Campbell Jr about an alien that crash-lands on Earth, and the band of humans that must battle it for their lives. When The Thing was released, many in the science fiction community threw up their hands in despair at the realisation that Campbell’s intelligent, telepathic, shape-shifting invader had been reduced to an out-and-out movie monster. While you can understand the disappointment and frustration that these people felt at the apparent “dumbing down” of Campbell’s story, you can also understand why Hawks may have done it. First of all, most obviously, the special effects of the time were hardly up to the challenge of depicting Campbell’s complex alien. However, perhaps a more pertinent reason is the political climate of the time. For the Americans of 1951, a mysterious flying ship that came from somewhere else, and the dangerous, inarticulate, unmistakably hostile being that it disgorged, were metaphors too potent to be denied. The Thing ends with one of science fiction cinema’s most famous speeches, as the reporter Ned Scott urges his compatriots to “Keep watching the skies!” It is unlikely that anyone in the audience had much doubt about who they were supposed to be watching out for.

You will have noticed that in discussing The Thing so far, I have twice mentioned Howard Hawks as the driving force of the production. For many years now, controversy has raged over the actual identity of the film’s director, with numerous commentators claiming that Hawks himself directed the film, and not his long-time editor, Christian Nyby, whose name is on the credits. As far as I can determine, the consensus these days is that while Nyby did indeed direct the film, Hawks rehearsed the actors rigorously before shooting started, and also oversaw the production. It is likely that he worked on the screenplay as well. In practical terms, however, such debates are meaningless: Hawks’ fingerprints are all over The Thing; it is a “Howard Hawks film” in everything but name. Characteristically, the story revolves around a group of people under pressure, who overcome adversity thanks to their common sense, their ingenuity, and above all their ability to band together and work as a team in the face of danger. Hawks was one of the screen’s leading humanists, evincing a simple and enjoyable faith in the ability of human beings to rise to any occasion and deal with whatever crisis confronted them. His films hum with positive energy, intelligence, and good humour. In The Thing, which unquestionably contains one of the screen’s most attractive depictions of the military, these qualities are embodied by Pat Hendry and the men under his command. Hendry himself is the kind of commanding officer everyone would like to have. Cool-headed and decisive, able to remain friendly with his men while effortlessly enforcing his orders and maintaining discipline, Hendry is perhaps most remarkable for his willingness to admit to his own limitations, and to act upon sensible advice no matter what its origin. Indeed, he spends much of the latter half of the film obeying “suggestions” from his multi-skilled crew chief, resigning himself to a secondary role as the inventive Bob and one of the scientists take matters into their own hands. The byplay between Hendry and his men is one of the film’s most entertaining aspects. One of Hawks’ trademarks was his overlapping dialogue, which he used to generate a sense of excitement and rapidity of action in his films. While His Girl Friday probably the best example of this trait, The Thing is not far behind, boasting dialogue that is remarkably believable. The characters in this film do not just stand around, politely waiting for others to finish their lines – sorry, I mean sentences – before speaking themselves: they interrupt, talk over the top of one another, smartmouth and editorialise. In other words – they talk like real people. Often, the focus of the action will be upon one or more of the characters, while others, perhaps not even in shot, will be providing the “commentary”. This is not only refreshing, it adds a great deal of credibility to the proceedings.

The other classic Hawks trademark to be found in The Thing – one which, overall, is one of the main reasons why his films are still so damned enjoyable to watch today – is the presence of a smart and sassy woman. As with all Hawks heroines, “Nikki” Nicholson (it is also typical of Hawks that she should sport a nickname rather than a real one) is attractive, strong-minded and independent, happy to mix it with the boys, and quite capable of giving as good as she gets – or as it happens, much better. The dialogue exchanged by Pat Hendry and Nikki, and the backstory to their lightly sketched romance, is nothing short of jaw-dropping. How many fifties film “heroes”, after all, are explicitly depicted as having such dishonourable intentions as Pat Hendry, who is revealed to have invited Nikki down to Anchorage with the express intention of getting her drunk and taking advantage of her? But the censors needn’t have worried: being a Hawks heroine, Nikki turns out to have a much harder head than Hendry himself. His campaign came to an inglorious conclusion when she drank him under the table, instead. Moreover, when drunk, Hendry turns out to have “more hands than an octopus” – something Nikki finds intensely amusing. In one of the film’s most startling scenes (one cut from many prints to this day), Nikki and Hendry resume their relationship when she invites him for a drink – on the proviso that he lets her tie his hands behind his back first. Thus safe from molestation, she proceeds to ply him with alcohol, and then have her way with him….in terms of kisses, at least. Now – all of this is immensely entertaining, and we certainly wouldn’t part with it, but it has to be said that Nikki isn’t one of Hawks’ more imperative heroines. Apart from one decisive action (and I’ll have more to say about that later), she isn’t all that necessary to the story. (Mind you, this didn’t stop the publicity department plastering her and Hendry all over the film’s poster art, you can see.) Still, we’re glad she’s there, if only because we’re treated to one of the most unexpected lines of dialogue in all fifties cinema as a consequence. Granted, it is made quite clear that Pat Hendry spent the night in question in an alcoholic stupor, but nevertheless, the casual inclusion of a remark like “When I woke up in the morning, you were gone” is not exactly what we expect to encounter in a film of this era. Less unexpectedly, by the end of the film the relationship between the two has taken a more conventional turn, and we receive, perhaps, an intimation of the way Howard Hawks thought marriage should be. Marginalised as his more technical-savvy juniors take control of the action, an exasperated Hendry announces, “I’ve given all the orders I’m going to give!” “If I thought that was true,” grins Nikki, “I’d ask you to marry me!”

The Thing, therefore, is better than fair to the military and to women. Its main shortcoming is that this fairness does not extend across the board. Well – perhaps, in 1951, that was too much to ask. The Thing is an absolutely seminal work in the history of science fiction cinema, initiating many conventions that today we consider to be clichés of the genre. One of those is its “science vs the military” subplot. While the film is structured around this conflict, it has to be said that it is never a fair fight. The airforce crewmen are unquestionably set up as the story’s heroes; the viewer is continually encouraged to side with them, and to assume that in any given situation, they will be right. Moreover, the film’s POV remains firmly with Hendry and his men at almost all times: there are only a couple of scenes in which none of the military personnel are present – and in one of them, Nikki is present, which pretty much amounts to the same thing. It is to the credit of the film’s production team that the manipulative nature of all this may not be readily apparent until a second, or even a third viewing. Certainly, Hendry and the others are competent, funny and smart: we enjoy their company. However, it is a fact that when you put aside these superficial qualities and really study The Thing, it becomes obvious that the film’s dominant characteristic is the way in which it stacks the deck against its central scientist, Dr Arthur Carrington.

By and large, science did not fair well in the movies of the fifties. Scientists were rarely allowed to be “right” about anything unless they were hand in glove with the military at the time. Even so, few movie scientists have been treated as harshly as Arthur Carrington, who is one of the screen’s definitive “mad scientists” – even though for most of The Thing, his madness seems more in the minds of Howard Hawks and Charles Lederer than in his own. Even before open hostilities break out between Carrington and Hendry, the audience has been visually clued in on what they are supposed to think about the scientist. With his fur hat and fur-collared coat (no-one else dresses this way), his beard and his effete manner (and in using the term “effete”, I’m being polite), Carrington is “coded” beyond any possibility of misinterpretation. (If we were given a glimpse into Carrington’s home life – assuming he has one – we’d probably find that he’s guilty of those other two great fifties “signifiers”, as well: a preference for cats, and an interest in modern art.) Worse than all of this, Carrington has no real sense of humour. Oh, sure, he permits himself the occasional superior smile, and contemptuous smirk, but he never actually laughs – while all the other characters are constantly joking and joshing each other. In a Howard Hawks film, such behaviour sticks out like a sore thumb; it “marks” Carrington as strongly and as negatively as anything could. Perhaps the best example of this, which indeed occurs during one of the film’s funniest scenes, is on the flight back from the discovery – and destruction – of the flying saucer, and the acquiring of the trapped alien. Lt McPherson reads aloud a Department of Defense directive stating that their investigation into unidentified flying objects has been abandoned because “no evidence exists” that there are such things. Most of those on board have a good laugh; Carrington just looks disgusted. (Of course, it is a fact that no real scientist has a sense of humour; you only have to read my review of Embryo to know that.) The third strike against the scientist is more subtle, but no less damning. When The Thing begins its rampage, the scientists themselves break into two camps, one siding with Hendry, the other with Carrington. While no particular attention is drawn to the fact, it is noticeable that the scientists who go over to Hendry are American and English, whilst those who stay loyal to Carrington – two of whom later lose their lives to the alien – sport distinct, if unspecified, foreign accents.

Even this isn’t enough, however. Almost everything about The Thing is based on the assumption that whatever he does, and whatever he thinks, Carrington is wrong. Even his reaction to the existence of The Thing – his impulse to protect it, his desire to communicate with it – is treated as irrational, if not downright insane. At length, the script proclaims outright that Carrington “is a scientist – he doesn’t think like us”; and in the American cinema of the 1950s (and not just the cinema), anyone who didn’t “think like us” was automatically to be distrusted – was dangerous at best, and a traitor at worst. One of the film’s most interesting “anti-Carringtonisms” is the fact that he is actually in agreement with the airforce command – that “higher authority” to which Hendry intends to appeal, when he refuses to let the scientists touch the block of ice. However, when his orders do come, Hendry ignores them completely, preferring to trust his own judgement, and defend his actions later. General Fogarty, as it turns out, orders Hendry to do exactly what Carrington wants: to preserve the flying saucer (yes, well….), and to take no action that could harm The Thing. Now, you would think the fact that Fogarty and Carrington are in agreement would be a mark in the scientist’s favour, but actually the opposite is true. From the moment the film begins, Fogarty is belittled and undermined. Almost everyone speaks disparagingly of him, even Ned Scott. (“That’s what I like about the army – smart all the way to the top!” he says sarcastically at one point, while, when Tex translates a garbled message from the general as “something….something….”, he observes, “Sounds like Fogarty.”) Thus, Fogarty’s agreement with Carrington is yet another strike against the scientist; and when Carrington praises Fogarty’s orders as “sane” and “intelligent”, the condemnation of both men is complete.

Yet for all this, the fact of the matter is that for most of The Thing Carrington’s behaviour is by no means unreasonable – or rather, is so only by the very peculiar standards of this film. Until the clash between the scientist and Hendry over the immediate fate of the ice-bound alien – and indeed, even beyond that – Carrington is unfailingly courteous, even friendly. He graciously defers to a better qualified colleague when the debate of the nature of The Thing turns botanical, and shows great patience in dealing with both Ned Scott’s incessant questions, and the reporter’s less-than-polite displays of scepticism. Carrington’s first questionable act is to conceal from Hendry the fact that The Thing has been in the greenhouse, and that it has killed – and bled dry – one of the sled dogs. Clearly, however, this is done with no malicious purpose, but partly in a display of understandable anger against Hendry’s assumption of authority within the base (an authority which, as Carrington rightly points out, he doesn’t actually have, and which he is able to enforce only because he is backed up by men carrying guns), and partly in the name of, yes, science. Two men die as a result of Carrington’s decision, but their superior did not intentionally place them in danger. Rather, Carrington took the sensible step of posting guards, exactly as Hendry does; and as he subsequently points out (or tries to: his explanation is disregarded and talked over), he himself stood a watch, and could just as easily have been one of the victims. After this, and secretively, Carrington undertakes the cultivation of baby “Things”, maintaining them on a diet of blood plasma. This is indeed foolhardy on Carrington’s part, since he has no knowledge of The Thing’s lifecycle – no notion, for instance, of how long it will be before these sedentary babies become ambulatory, like their “mother” – and dangerous like it, too. Nevertheless, in the face of Hendry’s declared intention of destroying the adult creature, Carrington’s impulse to preserve and propagate is understandable, if not exactly well-judged.

But for heaven’s sake, people! – a spaceship from another world and a creature from another world have just been encountered for the very first time. Surely Carrington should be excited – fascinated – even obsessed past the point of danger? How is anything less even remotely possible? Yet the film never accepts this. Perhaps the most mystifying aspect of The Thing is how casual everyone is about what they find in the ice; everyone but Carrington, that is. In one of the film’s most indelible moments – one understandably reproduced by John Carpenter, some thirty years later – the men spread out around the perimeter of the buried ship, only to discover that that it is round. “We finally got one!” says the ubiquitous Bob, and Ned Scott chips in with, “We found a flying saucer!” There is excitement in the men’s manner, but no shock. We are left to assume that, in 1951, it was considered only a matter of time before someone found a flying saucer; Hendry & Co. just happened to get there first. Likewise, when the ship is inadvertently destroyed, the men seem embarrassed rather than devastated – as if there’ll be another one along any moment. And again, back at the base, radio operator Tex Richards is startled by news of the alien, but once assured that it is “on ice, buddy, on ice”, he goes right back to rolling himself a cigarette. In the face of this off-hand attitude, the scientists’ urgency comes across more like hysteria – which is exactly how Hendry treats it: not as a valid position, but merely an inconvenience; certainly not anything that needs to be taken seriously. Indeed, he contemptuously stigmatises all of the scientists, not just Carrington, as “kids”, as “children”, as “nine-year-olds with a toy fire-truck”. As for Carrington himself, he may have won the Nobel Prize, have “received every kind of international kudos a scientist can attain”, but he cannot be trusted. He must be watched, guarded, and ultimately controlled by those who have not intelligence, but common sense – two qualities, we understand, that have little to do with one another. Like a child, Carrington must be protected from himself – while others must be protected from him.

Nikki, too, eventually calls Carrington “a kid”, and while we may give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume she merely giving Hendry back his own words as a way of defusing his anger against her employer, her words accompany one of the film’s most disturbing moments. Having been privy to Carrington’s revelation of his babies, Nikki makes the decision to give Hendry a look at the experimental notes she has been typing up. Now, let me be quite clear about this: handing over a scientist’s notes to a third party is not a small thing; it is, in fact, a betrayal of the first order. This is not to say that Nikki is wrong, necessarily, under the circumstances; but a little more doubt, a little more heartburning over her resolution, might have been in order. (Of course, if she did anything like that today, Nikki would spend the rest of her life in court, being hit with lawsuit after lawsuit for violating confidentiality and intellectual property agreements.) But the film vindicates her, the decisive factor being that The Thing is not just hostile, but hungry. A number of science fiction films over the years have made their aliens blood-drinkers, and to me it’s always seemed like a cop-out, an easy way of removing any debate over whether the alien should be destroyed by making it something that must be destroyed, purely as a matter of self-defence. (We are supposed to ignore the unlikelihood that “blood”, as we know it, is widespread throughout the universe.) Here, it is also used to undermine any possible validity in Carrington’s arguments. The scientist, in fact, makes two speeches in the course of the film that have achieved a sort of immortality. When it is discovered that The Thing is an advanced form of plant, Carrington is thrilled. He applauds the thought of a world where plants are the dominant form of life, arguing that “its development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors”. “No pain or pleasure as we know it – no emotions – no heart,” Carrington famously purrs. “Our superior – our superior in every way.”

Now, there is some remarkably specious reasoning in all this. First off, let’s consider the “no emotion” card. This is, of course, a double-whammy. In the 1950s, it was well known what kind of people were “emotionless”; Carrington’s approval of a being without emotions is yet another label, all of a piece with his fur hat and his beard. As well, we have that amazingly persistent fallacy that science itself is fundamentally “unemotional” – although why it should be, more than any other line of work, is beyond me. Logical thought and a lack of emotion are not, after all, the same thing; and frankly, I can’t think of too many jobs out there where continually making decisions based on your emotions would be a good thing. Carrington’s speech, in short, is both scientifically incorrect and based upon unsupported assumptions – two things you’d scarcely expect him to be guilty of. It is a fact that the development of a means of genetic recombination through sexual reproduction was one of the defining events in our planet’s history. Even the most “unemotional” scientist would hardly dismiss it as nothing more than an inconvenience. And plants – duh! – do reproduce sexually; they just don’t – you know – “do it”. As for Carrington’s other conclusions, they are based on some very shaky extrapolations indeed. The Thing feels “no pain or pleasure” – how does he know? By the way it later howls when attacked with fire, it seems the former, at least, is untrue. And no emotions? Is anger an emotion? Because it certainly displays plenty of that. That Carrington, who throughout the opening section of the film refuses to answer questions that he cannot answer accurately, and who insists that he “dislikes being vague”, would suddenly commit himself to statements like these, in the absence of any firm evidence, is unlikely in the extreme.

However, it is these beliefs that drive Carrington to one of the film’s most famous moments. The Thing gave to the world of science fiction one of the all-time great clichés when it had Carrington cry repeatedly, “We must try to communicate with it!” At the climax of the film, he acts upon this credo, throwing himself between The Thing and his fellow human beings and making a desperate plea, in which he assumes both “intelligence” and “wisdom” in the creature confronting him. “Use that intelligence!” he implores it. “I’m not your enemy – I’m a scientist---”

And it is at this precise moment, of course, that The Thing disposes of Carrington with one swing of its arm, leaving the scientist with concussion and a fractured collarbone – and, presumably, a few altered ideas about the desirability of “intelligence”.

But really, all of this is very wrong. The Thing’s race may be intelligent – indeed, we know that it is – but there is no good reason to assume that this particular specimen has any shining qualities. It was piloting a spaceship, certainly, but how do we know that required any particular skill or cleverness? All we know for sure is that it managed to pilot its ship smack into what is, after all, a fair-sized planet. The creature knows enough to cut the power that is heating the camp, true, but then it also walks straight into a fairly obvious trap, and displays no comprehension of the warning that Carrington is trying to convey. So as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to the creature’s “superior intellect”, the jury is still out. Indeed, for all we know – and it would be just Carrington’s luck – this individual might be The Thing-ian equivalent of the young Vogon space guard: same mental capacity, same range of talents.

Perhaps the greatest tribute that I can pay to The Thing is to confess that, despite the preceding three pages of complaint about the unfairness of the film’s handling of Carrington, I love it with a passion. It’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s suspenseful, it’s energetic – and it has a “jump” scene that still gets audiences today, as I was pleased to discover during a recent revival screening. (I’m not going to tell you what it is – you’ll know it when you see it!) More than all this, however, The Thing is a landmark in the history of the science fiction film. Viewers who see it for the first time nowadays are likely, most unjustly, to see it as one big bundle of clichés. This is by no means a criticism of the film, but rather an indication of just how influential it has been – something for which it rarely receives sufficient credit. For instance, I’ve seen reviews of The Thing written within the last decade that dismiss its characters as “the usual crew”, with no recognition of the fact that this film was the one that determined who “that crew” would be in countless movies to follow. In Arthur Carrington, with his dislike of “emotion”, his passion for “intelligence”, and his thwarted desire to “communicate”, we have the model for an entire psychiatric ward’s worth of mad movie scientists. And as for the film’s basic structure--- Let’s see: a disparate group of characters, trapped, isolated, unable to communicate with the outside world, which has to battle a monster that lurks in the shadowy corners of their facility, picking the unfortunate humans off one by one. Sound familiar? There is a tendency these days, when this scenario recurs – as it very often does – to dismiss the film in question as “an Alien clone”; and while that is probably true in the short term, we should never lose sight of just how much Ridley Scott and his writers owed to The Thing in the first place. The other long-term effect of The Thing, as I have already indicated, came from its “science vs the military” subplot, which is the only aspect of the film that might actually be copied more frequently than the “isolated characters” set-up. Of course, these days it is far more likely than it was in the fifties that “science” will turn out to be right, and that it will be allowed to save the day – while the military, quite often, is treated just as unfairly today as science ever was.

For two members of the cast, appearing in The Thing also had long-term consequences. Kenneth Tobey did not have the career that his performance here indicates that he should have, but it ended well. During the eighties, the film-makers who as children had quaked at the very thought of this film sought the actor out: he had roles in, among other things, Flying High!, The Lost Empire, Spaced Invaders, and most significantly, in Joe Dante’s The Howling, Gremlins, Gremlins 2 and Innerspace. But it was for the beleaguered Robert Cornthwaite (who would go on to play “a scientist” in Monkey Business, War Of The Worlds, and Colossus: The Forbin Project) that Dante reserved his greatest honour. The highlight of Matinee, a truly wonderful film, is Mant!, a glorious, affectionate, wickedly clever pastiche of the science fiction films of the 1950s. Many familiar faces pop up in this brilliant little film-within-a-film, and amongst them is Robert Cornthwaite’s. Naturally, he is playing – “a scientist”.

There is a greatness about The Thing that is strangely hard to pin-point. Perhaps it is simply that the film does so much right, it finally becomes more than the sum of its parts. That said, The Thing has its flaws – quite apart from its handling of Carrington which, my voluble complaints notwithstanding, is very much a matter of opinion. The film succeeds in hiding its monster for much of its running-time, but it can’t do it forever, and when we are finally granted a good look, it is unquestionably a disappointment. Even allowing for the technical limitations of the time, it’s hard to believe that anyone was actually supposed to be frightened of – James Arness in leafy drag. Far from being recognisably “alien”, The Thing, with its squared-off forehead, its height, and its lurching gait, is a riff on Karloff’s Creature from Frankenstein – perhaps a hint that the real “monster” in this film is science run amuck. Yet there is, in fact, precious little actual science in this film, for all it is considered to be “classic science fiction”. One genuine blunder is the carelessness that all the characters – the scientists included – display with respect to radioactivity. Throughout the film, Geiger counters are waved about, high radiation is detected – yet no-one does anything to protect themselves, nor even gives any sign that they are aware of the danger in the first place. (Perhaps the reason that they are so unconcerned is that radioactivity disappears when you blow it up. Really.) Of course, if it comes right down to it – why should a plant, even an alien plant, be radioactive? Carrington, for all his theories, is silent on this point. This is perhaps the one time when the film does not succeed in disguising a contrivance – The Thing is radioactive purely so the men can know when it’s hanging around. Other objections may be raised with respect to the destruction of the saucer – if it survived a crash landing, would it really be vulnerable to thermite bombs? – even though this comes directly from Campbell’s story; and also to the melting of the ice by the electric blanket. However, that Barnes didn’t notice the melting is credible, given that he has his back turned, and is wearing earmuffs against the freezing cold: this represents one of the script’s better “saves”.

But The Thing’s virtues completely outweigh its faults. I find it a remarkably satisfying film to watch. I love the tautness, the briskness, the logic of its screenplay – and I love even more that its characters are believable people who, even in the midst of a crisis, act and react believably – and have believable things happen to them. (A nice touch is Barnes’ broken arm, which he suffers not in battling The Thing, per se, but in tripping over a bunk!) This is even true of Ned Scott, who with a brief reference to “El Alamein, and Bougainville, and Okinawa” lets us know that he, too, can be relied upon to keep his head in the face of danger. (Scott may qualify as the era’s least Odious Comic Relief©. Heck, quite a number of his lines are actually funny – although how one reacts to his infamous exclamation – “An intellectual carrot – the mind boggles!” – is, I suppose, a matter of personal taste.) Carrington, meanwhile, is ultimately judged “misguided” rather than “wrong”, let alone “traitorous”: his public humiliation and his physical injuries are considered sufficient punishment for his transgressions, which for all his supposed lack of emotion, are those of passion rather than stupidity. Intriguingly, the first draft of this film had Carrington gruesomely killed off at the end. I like to think that Howard Hawks’ innate sense of fair play came into action here, and that in recognition of how roughly the scientist had been treated, he granted him a reprieve.

A painful number of science fiction films these days qualify as Idiot Pictures©: the characters in them behave as no-one ever has, or ever would, purely to justify the impossibilities of the screenplay. There’s none of that here. The Thing is – and although I hesitate to use the word under the circumstances, it’s the only appropriate one – an intelligent film. Perhaps this is best illustrated by something this film gets right, and an appalling number of other films get wrong. There is an unspoken law in science fiction and action films (and my colleagues over at Jabootu’s have had much to say about this), that any plan that fails once must never be tried again, even if it failed through no fault of its own. In The Thing, in contrast, the characters learn from their experiences. When The Thing first attacks, the men splash it with kerosene and set it on fire. They succeed in wounding it and driving it away, but they also destroy their own recreation room and very nearly fry themselves, as well. Later, when the time for the final battle comes, the men refine their method of attack, not using the dangerous kerosene approach, but employing another source of heat, one more easily controlled: electricity. It’s stuff like this – so simple, you’d think, but in fact so disappointingly rare – that lifts The Thing above the pack. The uneasy world politics of the early fifties may have inspired the film, but Howard Hawks was careful to provide answers to the questions that his film raised, and to reassure those watching that America’s security was safe in the hands of brave, clever, resourceful men and women, who could be relied upon to rise to any occasion, and deal with any crisis. Despite its flying saucer from somewhere else, its rampaging monster, and its untrustworthy scientist, it is likely that the audiences of 1951 found The Thing to be a strangely comforting experience.

Want a second opinion of The Thing From Another World? Visit Stomp Tokyo.

Footnote:  This is the second in a series of “tag-team” reviews undertaken by Chad Denton of The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and myself entitled “That Was Then, This Is Now”, in which we compare and contrast two cinematic versions of the same story.

In 1982, John Carpenter, a passionate fan of Howard Hawks, released his own version of The Thing, taking full advantage in the quantum leaps in special effects technology that had occurred in the interim. Over at TGTBTU, Chad takes a look at this version of the story. As well, as an extra special bonus, Zack Handlen of The Duck Speaks also gives us his views on the story on which these films were based, Who Goes There? . And if you still can’t get enough of shape-shifting aliens (or tall guys in makeup, whichever), head back to TGTBTU, where Chad, Zack and I will debate the merits of both films.

Whew! It’s a Thing-A-Thon!

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