This review was first published, in audio form last week, on StarShipSofa Number 224. http://www.starshipsofa.com/blog/2012/02/08/starshipsofa-no-224-paul-cornell-l-e-modesitt-jr and so, after a suitable pause, here is the text version.
Hello again from sunny South Africa.
This week the Zoologger column in The New Scientist focussed on the unique life form that is half plant, half animal, Mesodinium chamaeleon. Of course that got me thinking about other vegetables that think that they are animals. And so, welcome to my review of “The Thing From Another World”.
With the publication of “The Things” by Peter Watts and the release of the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 version of “The Thing”, now is probably a good time to take another look at the first film adaptation of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s “Who Goes There?” which was first published in the August 1938 edition of Astounding Science-Fiction.
This is an RKO Picture and, I don’t know why, but I still get a feeling of excitement when that giant transmitter mast on the top of the world appears…
Produced in 1951 by Howard Hawks and directed by Christian Nyby (who had more success as an editor rather than a director) – it can be argued that this movie was actually directed by Hawks himself, stylistically it certainly seems so, and Hawks admitted to giving Nyby the director’s credit so that he would be able to get his Directors Guild membership. The adapted screenplay was by Charles Lederer (who co-wrote the original “Ocean’s 11” “His Girl Friday” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”).
The film stars Kenneth Tobey as Captain Pat Hendry (Tobey can also be seen in “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”, and “It Came from Beneath the Sea”. However, I remember him from TV as a child. As, in 1957, Tobey launched his own television series “The Whirlybirds”.) Captain Hendry’s love interest is provided by Nikki Nicholson (in a brilliantly sparky performance from Margaret Sheridan for whom this was her major role. Hawks had offered Sheridan the female lead opposite John Wayne in the 1948 film “Red River” but she turned it down as she was expecting a child and she never reached the heights that either Hawks expected or her star quality and acting skills warranted). The main scientist, Dr Carrington, is icily played by Robert Cornthwaite (who was primarily a stage actor but can be seen in the “The War of the Worlds” and “Colossus: The Forbin Project”). The, almost obligatory for that era, wise-cracking reporter, Ned Scott, is played by Douglas Spencer, mainly a character actor, he can be seen in “This Island Earth” and “Them!” but, most memorably as one half of the two-headed Martian in The Twilight Zone episode “Mr. Dingle, the Strong”. And, finally, “The Thing” itself is an unrecognisable James Arness (who went on to star as Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke” on TV).
Coming to the story itself, there were two important changes, both, I feel, more due to practical issues rather than any inherent need to change the original. The first is that the action is moved from Antarctica to the North Pole (with the opening scenes taking place in Anchorage, Alaska). The major change, however, is that, in this version, The Thing cannot shapeshift as it does in the original story or the subsequent film adaptations. This may have been due to budgetary and technological constraints, and it does alter the premise of the movie; but the ability to spawn thousands (or millions) of offspring means that The Thing retains its ability to overrun planet Earth, which is vital in maintaining the sense of peril to us all rather than just the few on the research station.
Here is a quick run-through of the plot which should highlight for you the similarities to the other versions and the differences.
As I said, the movie opens (after a brilliant burn-out title shot) in Anchorage, Alaska, where Captain Pat Hendry is informed that Polar Expedition 6 has recorded “some kind of disturbance affecting instruments” and that Dr. Carrington “believes an aircraft crashed in the vicinity”. Hendry flies up with his crew, including some Inuit and a dog sled and dogs.
On arrival, Hendry is shown evidence that something, equivalent to 20,000 tons of steel, crashed out on the ice. A team go out and find a patch of melted ice and, in an iconic shot, stand above the shadowy shape to estimate its size, the camera pulls back and we realise (along with those on the ice) that “we’ve found a flying saucer!” They use thermite bombs, which they improbably estimate will take 30 seconds, to clear the ice from the ship; but, unfortunately they manage to blow up it up! They find that something has crawled clear to be frozen in the ice (again, unfeasibly quickly). They cut an 8 foot ‘man’ out, in a block of ice, and take it back to camp.
Captain Hendry refuses to let the scientists defrost it. This is the first intimation that, perhaps, scientists do not always know best. This is a continuing theme throughout the movie that plays on some of the anti-scientist views of the time (six years after the first atom bomb) as compared to the view that American servicemen and sensibly cautious scientists should make the decisions.
There is a storm that has resulted in radio interference and everything is grounded, so Hendry leaves the block of ice as it is until he can get orders from Anchorage. A guard is placed and one is spooked by the sight of the alien, covering it with a blanket (not knowing that it is an electric blanket). The ice melts and the dogs go crazy. The Thing is alive and the guard shoots it, but it escapes into the snow, to have a fight with the dogs.
An arm is found and, when investigated, the scientists discover that it has no arterial structure, no nerve endings, and, under a microscope it appears to be vegetable. We are then treated to one of Dr. Carrington’s logical leaps. He states that the creature’s brain’s development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors, and that it is the humans superior in every way.
They also discover some tiny seedpods under the nails and observe that the hand starts to move once it has ingested the dog’s blood that covered it.
While Hendry’s men search for The Thing, Dr. Carrington continually takes its side, describing it as a “Stranger In A Strange Land” (a quote from Exodus, 10 years before Heinlein’s novel).
There are a series of scenes where the scientists keep what they are learning a secret from Hendry, including the fact that Carrington is growing a batch of seeds, feeding them plasma from the infirmary. There is a split in the scientists, some want to destroy it and the seedlings, but Carrington keeps a tight grip on them. But, after a dog is found with its blood drained, and two scientists, Olsen and Arbuck, are discovered hanging upside-down from beams in the greenhouse with their throats cut. The truth comes out.
The Thing breaks in again and the airmen burn it with kerosene but it dives out of the window and they plan to go after it with more kerosene. However one of the scientists suggests that a high voltage could burn it away. The Thing cuts the fuel to the heaters and everyone congregates in the generator room; while the trap is being set up with fence wire on the floor and ceiling of the passageway. However, Dr. Carrington, contrary as usual, turns off the generator and tries to talk to The Thing; getting violently brushed aside. The generator is switched back on and the plan works, the electricity burns it up.
Soon after, radio contact is restored and Scotty gets a warning out to the reporters in Anchorage who are waiting to hear what is going on.
“The Thing from Another World” was released in April 1951 and, by the end of that year, had become the year’s 46th biggest earner, beating all other science fiction films released that year, including “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and “When Worlds Collide”. In 2001, the film was deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
What, for me, makes this movie stand out are the characterisations, there is the growing relationship between Hendry and Nikki Nicholson, there are the sarcastic one-liners between Hendry’s crew and Scotty, there’s the conflict between the scientists who only look at the science and don’t consider its implications with the military and the other group of scientists. All in all it is an enjoyable 87 minutes, which rightfully deserves a place as one of the most influential movies of the 50s.
And so, I’ll finish with the words of the reporter, Scotty, “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.”