Keep watching the skies! “The Thing from Another World” (1951)

September 18, 2008

Okay, enough of that benevolent-alien-“hey-I’m-just-passing-through” crap. E.T. has officially left the building. Here we have the beating, passionate heart of 1950s genre cinema—The Thing From Another World. This is alien-invaders as vicious other and American camaraderie and ingenuity as the salvation of the free world. What? We already saw that in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers? Yeah, but this one takes place in the Arctic and was remade by John Carpenter.

By now, the premise of The Thing (I’m just gonna leave it at that…Carpenter did) should be familiar to any vertebrate organism on the planet: A bunch of guys in the Arctic stumble across an alien frozen in the ice. The alien defrosts. Wackiness ensues. The movie was based upon the novella “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell Jr. but eschews Campbell’s shape-shifting alien (which Carpenter would retain) for a more straightforward big monster. He also supplements Campbell’s researchers with airmen—a change that leads the most substantive undercurrent of the film.

What keeps The Thing from being just another ‘50s sci-fi movie is the influence of Howard Hawks, which is as omnipresent in the film as the cold. The film is credited to director Christian Nyby, but that’s a little like saying Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper. Nyby has acknowledged that Hawks was on the set for every day of filming, and it has become conventional wisdom that the movie is pretty much his. It sure as hell looks like his.

Hawks’s filmography is practically a history of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He made tough guys tough. And guys. Before there was Michael Mann, there was Howard Hawks. And this movie is no difference. The dialogue is more natural than anything else in films at the time—Hawks was a big fan of people talking over one another, interrupting one another, and generally the natural patterns of speech. He’s also a master of capturing the masculine camaraderie that typified postwar American society (in myth, if not reality).

Hawks, like Mann, also had a talent for making his heroes simultaneously consummately professional and disarmingly ordinary. The Thing’s Captain Patrick Hendry (a superb Kenneth Tobey) is no exception. Hendry is clearly an experienced Air Force officer (and before that the Army Air Corps) and popular with his men, but he’s hardly superhuman. Mostly, his skills seem to be in managing his people—which, when you think of it is all that officer does—and thinking fast.

Hawks’s influence is also felt in the sharp, bantering romance between Hendry and Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), the base’s head secretary. As with most of his movies, the female lead is easily the equal to male. And while Nikki is mostly seen bringing the men coffee and typing reports, her scenes with the men clearly shows her as capable of holding her own. Her scenes with Patrick have the same crackle as the ones between Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep. In one fairly shocking (for 1951) enocunter, Nikki has Patrick tied to an office chair (he got a bit grabby with her last time they flirted) and is feeding him a beer. When she leans in to kiss him, he playfully recoils. Nikki grabs him by the hair and forces him to kiss her. Unsurprisingly, this scene was edited out of TV and VHS versions of the film, and I can only imagine what audiences in the ‘50s must have made of it (it comes about 6:40 into the clip).

It’s easy to see The Thing as an anti-intellectual movie, since a major subplot concerns the tension between the Air Force’s attempts to destroy the monster and the attempts by Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), the head scientist, to keep it alive. Carrington regards Patrick as little more than a knuckle-dragging, gun-slinging Neanderthal (*sigh* welcome to my world), too ignorant to understand the magnitude of what they’ve discovered. He experiments on a piece of the thing using the base’s blood supply (endangering the life of a wounded man in the process), then attempts to sabotage the men’s plan to kill the thing.

But I’m not sure Carrington doesn’t seem to represent science as much as Socialism and its apathy toward the individual. Aside from his vaguely Bolshevik sartorial style, Carrington has a speech near the end of the film in which he extols the importance of science above all else, and why the men’s lives are ultimately meaningless in the face of scientific advancement (it comes about seven minutes into the clip):

Substitute the State for science in that monologue and you could have any given Stalin-era diatribe.

If the movie has a weakness, it has to be the actual thing (played by a very sheepish James Arness). The creature design isn’t very imaginative or frightening—basically a slightly more plasticky Frankenstein monster. Hawks must have picked up on this, since the monster is never clearly seen—always being shot at distances and in low lighting. The famous shots of it such as the one shown above were publicity stills.

The Thing may not be a great piece of art, but it’s great piece of entertainment crafted by one of the masters in the field. It holds up nearly as well today—some 66 years later—as it did then. Carpenter was a big fan, and his remake stands on its own but it doesn’t try to top the original. And it shouldn’t.

Besides, does any film have a more famous closing line (and don’t give me any of that Gone with the Wind crap): “Watch the skies, everyone! Watch the skies!”


  1. What about “Shane, come back!”

    What about, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship?”

    What about, “It was Beauty killed the Beast?”

    What about “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up?”

    What about “Love means never having to say you’re sorry?”

  2. “As with most of his movies, the female lead is easily the equal to male. And while Nikki is mostly seen bringing the men coffee and typing reports, her scenes with the men clearly shows her as capable of holding her own. Her scenes with Patrick have the same crackle as the ones between Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep.”

    Well, it’s easy to appreciate a woman’s snap, crackle, and pop when she’s content to bring you coffee and has no designs on truly being your equal or, God forbid, your competition. And while the whole tie-up job is titillating for the era, it is made quite clear that Hendry was secretly loose the entire time, which gives him ultimate control over everything that happens. That’s consistent with the dynamic in professional domination, but not with any real gender equality.

    I enjoy Hawks’ movies, and I particularly enjoy Bogart and Bacall, but it’s important to remember that she’s also allowed to be a firebrand because she’s 26 years his junior. In The Big Sleep, she’s a much younger, daughter-like figure. Once again, no real competition when it comes to power.

    Not to blame Hawks–these were probably the terms under which women were allowed to show any power on screen at the time. And he should definitely be given kudos for interesting female characters. But I think you give him rather too much credit for creating “equal” female characters. “Equally interesting” as the male characters, yes. “Equal”, no.

  3. Okay, Qui, I’ll give you the first four. I’m not sure about “Love means never having to say your sorry.” Was that the last line of the movie?

  4. Hmm, now that you ask me, I don’t think so.

  5. “There’s no place like home.”

    “God damn you all to hell!”

    “The horror! The horror!”

  6. I’m not counting “The Wizard of Oz” because I hate it. I’ll give you the other two, though (even though I don’t think “The horror” was a last line.)

  7. I’m not sure about the various alternate cuts, but I believe in the original, the final lines are “The horror! The horror!” in voiceover.

  8. Okay, fine. “The Thing” has ONE OF THE most famous closing lines in cinema. Does that make everyone happy?

  9. To be honest, I’d never heard of that line until I read this review.

  10. Ditto

  11. That’s because this was the product of something called “The Cold War,” BR. don’t worry, it was over by the time you were born.

  12. i hadnt even heard of the movie before…
    but there is noooo way she is nearly equal to any of the men in this film.
    all she does is flit around offering coffee making a flirty fool of herself.

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