Three films from three different eras all with the same idea at their core…this is part one of three.
Let’s start with a little background.
1951- The USA is engaged in a “police action” in Korea. Seoul is captured for the second time by the Communist forces of China and North Korea only to be recaptured months later by UN Forces. The Cold War between east and west is reaching new levels of tension. The US begins nuclear weapons testing at Nevada’s Frenchman’s Flat. The USSR had successfully tested its own nuclear device in 1949 and by 1951 was making great strides to catch up. In September they tested a 38.3 kiloton device, not quite double in power to the plutonium device dropped in 1945 on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.
In April, 1951 RKO Pictures releases the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby film Thing From Another World. Set in a North Pole military station, the soldiers discover something in the ice. A flying saucer. They bungle the attempt to extricate the space ship from the ice–they destroy it with thermite–but they do find a “thing” frozen in the ice nearby. This they take back to the base.
At one level the story is a standard B-movie action/adventure story. An alien is discovered. It is seen as a threat. It kills. The hero and companions combat the alien. Despite several setbacks they kill the alien.
There is a second layer to this story. There is the conflict between science and the military. Dr. Carrington wants to study the alien space ship, understand the technology, talk to the alien, to protect it… even at the cost of his life. Captain Hendry is the military leader here. He follows orders. He is told to examine the wreck; he does so. By his training he knows he must first protect his troops, the civilian staff, guests(like the good Dr. Carrington and reporter Ned Scott), and the base as a whole. Additionally he must protect American interests and the world from any threat from the alien. Is the alien the scout for an invasion? Is it the carrier of some disease or plague which will destroy humanity?
A third conflict is between the truth and the safety of the pubic. Here Captain Hendry limits what the reporter, Ned Scott, is allowed to report to the world about their discovery. Captain Hendry asks his superiors, on behalf of Scott, if any reports may be released about the alien and its craft. Scott is a stand-in for the American people. We want the truth, the facts. But do we always need to know everything?
As a film the strength of The Thing from Another World is in the concepts explored and some elements of the execution. Filmed for $1.6 million dollars(about $13 million in today’s dollars), the film was well received critically despite being a science fiction film. Reviewed in the New York Times, “Not since Dr. Frankenstein wrought his mechanical monster has the screen had such a good time dabbling in scientific fiction….the film is full of unexpected thrills.” Interestingly this newspaper excerpt, illustrates the limited understanding of the science behind what Dr. Frankenstein was doing and a lack of attention to detail. Frankenstein’s monster was not a mechanical being, but rather one of dead people stitched together and reanimated.
Most sci-fi films of this era were b-movies made on the cheap to be the lesser film on a twin bill. They were lambasted for their low budget, poor acting, terrible make-up, laughable special effects, illogical concepts or for a hundred other flaws. Here there were few of those flaws. The viewer is provided only brief views of the alien, although a number of close-ups were shot. There is more mystery for the audience when we don’t get a complete look at the creature. This is akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s quote about suspense, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Whatever the film didn’t give us in details about the alien, we fill in with our imagination. The acting is fair, the dialogue only mildly stilted at times, the special effects are well above average and fairly realistic. Check out the scene where they try to burn the alien for an example of a well done scene. Take a look at a colorized version here: Colorized.
Overall, Thing from Another World is perhaps the quintessential example of early Cold War paranoia in science fiction, and definitely worth a viewing for not only science fiction fans, but fans of movies.
Next time a look at John Carpenter’s very successful 1982 remake The Thing.