Saturday, August 2, 2014

Them! 1954 Movie As Fodder For Your Old School Post Apocalyptic Campaigns

 Them is a seminal classic movie that still gets the heart racing when its on the television. I don't remember when I first saw this classic as a kid. It might have been as part of a drive in two for one summer flick. But this movie has everything a DM needs to run his players through an ant infested hell.

Look I've used giant ants of various sizes over the years throughout Gamma World First Edition, Metamorphosis Alpha, OD&D, AD&D first edition, second, etc, etc. And no one ever seems to expect the DM to pull out the Giant Atomic Mutant Ants. I can't explain it but players seem to refuse to believe that any DM would be cruel enough to create megadungeons filled with these mutant bastards.

According to Wiki : 
Them! is a 1954 Warner Bros. Pictures black and white science fiction filmabout a nest of gigantic irradiated ants discovered in the New Mexico desert. The film is based on an original story treatment by George Worthing Yates, which was developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes. It was produced by David Weisbart, directed by Gordon Douglas, and stars James WhitmoreEdmund GwennJoan Weldon and James Arness.

A deeper look into the plot via Wiki : 
New Mexico State Police troopers Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) discover a little girl in shock, wandering the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. They retrace her steps to a mobile home owned by an FBI agent named Ellinson, who was on vacation in the area with his family. The side of the trailer was ripped open from the outside, the rest of the family is missing and no money was taken. A single unidentifiable animal track seems to be the only clue. Then a strange, pulsating high pitched noise echos out of the desert on the wind. The little girl briefly reacts in fear when she hears the sound, however this is not noticed by those around her.
A general store owner named "Gramps" Johnson is found dead; his store is also torn apart from the outside. No cash was taken, but a barrel of sugar was smashed open. Gramps' Winchester rifle was fired and is now twisted out of shape. Peterson leaves by car to check on the little girl and make a report, leaving Blackburn to guard the store alone. Blackburn hears the strange, pulsating sound outside and leaves to investigate; off-camera gunshots are fired, the strange sound grows faster and louder, and Blackburn's scream is heard.
A plaster cast of the odd footprint found near the trailer is sent to Washington, D.C. Peterson's boss later points out that Gramps had time to fire all his ammunition at his attacker, and Peterson's missing partner was a "crack shot," eliminating the possibility of a homicidal maniac. Even more puzzling is the coroner's determination of Johnson's cause of death: a broken neck and back, skull fracture, crushed abdomen, and "enough formic acid in his body to kill 20 men."
The FBI sends Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) to investigate after the Bureau is unable to identify the footprint. With him he brings Drs. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat Medford (Joan Weldon), both [myrmercologists] from the Department of Agriculture. The elder Medford examines the footprint. He later exposes the Ellinson girl to formic acid fumes, which revives her from a catatonic state; she screams, "Them! Them!"
Though his suspicions are validated by the girl's reaction, Medford will not reveal his theory; doing so prematurely might lead "to a nationwide panic". While investigating the Ellinson campsite, Pat encounters a giant, eight-foot long foraging ant and screams. The lawmen run to her and empty their pistols into the insect with little effect. On directions from Harold, Peterson and Graham destroy the ant's antennae, blinding it; they then kill it with sustained fire from a Thompson submachine gun. Harold reveals his theory: a colony of giant ants, mutated by radiation from the first atomic bomb test near Alamogordo, is responsible for the killings.
A search conducted by the Medfords, Peterson, Graham and Major Kibby and General O'Brien discovers the ants' nest by helicopter. Poison gas bombs are tossed into the nest. Graham, Peterson and Pat descend into the nest to kill any survivors. Deep inside, Pat finds evidence that two queen ants have hatched and have escaped to establish new colonies. To avoid a general panic, Dr. Medford gives a government task force a briefing on ants as the government covertly investigates any reports of unusual activity, even sightings of "flying saucers".
The first report comes from South Texas where a private pilot (Fess Parker) has been committed to a mental hospital after claiming that his plane was forced down by UFOs shaped like giant ants. Next, the Coast Guard receives a report of a giant queen hatching her brood in the hold of a freighter in the Pacific. Giant ants attack the ship's crew and there are few survivors. The freighter is later sunk by U. S. Navy gunfire, eliminating one of the queens.
A third report comes in that leads Peterson and Graham with Major Kibby to a Los Angeles rail yard where a smashed boxcar has been emptied of 40 tons of sugar. An alcoholic in a hospital "drunk tank" claims to have seen giant ants outside his window. The mutilated body of a father is recovered but the two young sons who were with him are missing. Peterson, Graham and Kibby find evidence that the father and kids were flying a model airplane in the Los Angeles River drainage channel near the hospital. Given the apparent convergence of sightings, the President of the United States declares martial law in Los Angeles; more troops are assigned to find the new nest in the vast storm drain network under the city.

Peterson finds the two missing boys alive deep inside the drain system, but they are trapped near the ants' nest. He calls for reinforcements and goes in alone to rescue the boys, getting them to safety just before he is attacked by a giant ant. Graham arrives with reinforcements and kills the ant attacking Peterson as other ants swarm to protect the nest. Peterson dies from his injuries. Graham and the other soldiers fight off the giant ants, but a tunnel collapse isolates Graham. Several ants charge him, but he is able to hold them off long enough for the other troops to break through and rescue him. The queen and her young hatch-lings are discovered and destroyed.
Afterward, Dr. Medford issues a warning: "When Man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict."

The Legacy Of Them!
In Your Old School Post Apocalyptic Campaigns 

Any old school post apocalyptic campaign that I've run has used these monsters as part of a location based mega dungeon. Usually with the assumption that back in '54 not all of the nests were destroyed and the ants have been living out in the Mexican desert still mutating mad as hell and the PC's are going to have to brave a nest or two. 
Them! raises some very interesting ideas for a dungeon master for a post apocalyptic campaign. This is a chance to use one monster throughout an adventure and to continue the creep factor that seems to go with these creatures.
The several dozen times that I used this film's monsters as inspiration, I've always piggy backed on a location or two from the pre apocalypse to really wet the appetites of the PC's. Greed is an amazing motivator with giant ants.
 To really get the juices flowing, view a couple of documentaries on ants on youtube and go to town. National Geographic has several worth looking into.
Them is unique in several factors when designing your own adventures spun off from this film. One is the fact, that this monster can be used in an urban setting with little issue. Two the atomic monster tie in, and three this style of adventure can easily tie into an OD&D style of game for a twisted cross over.
There's also the sugary draw for these monsters. Haunted candy factories, storage bins, and many other locations can house these mutant bastards. Several NPC's have been descendants of the cast who first encountered them in my games including a whole family of Medfords who are continuing their ancestor's work on the ants.
There's also the possibility of using the Queen ants from Them! as hazards that begin to settle in the region of the PC's one Spring. A sets of ruins have  been used several times to bait  parties into investigating the sighting of a queen ants in the regions of my campaigns. It works every time as a way to get PC's into a particular set of ruins that might further your fiendish DM plots.
This classic always seems to draw folks right into the post apocalyptic frame of mind. This Warner movie remains on of the corner stones of Fifties Atomic horror and a great draw for DM's to use as fodder.

This post is not meant as a challenge to trade marks or copy rights of the film's owners, this blog post is for entertainment and educational purposes only. 


  1. THEM is one of my all time favorite movies, really setting the bar high for atomic horror. What I love about the movie is that all of the characters play it entirely straight, there is no doubt that within the world of the movie, giant ants are the most serious threat in the world.

  2. I'm glad to see that his classic science fiction film is still loved so much. I think that in the world of Them!, the giant ants are going to take over, eventually. To me Them!, really does set the bar very high for atomic horror. The only other film with the same kind of classic presence might be The Day The Earth Stood Still in my estimation or Forbidden Planet. This one really does set the bar pretty high. More coming up Seaofstarsrpg and thanks for the comment.


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