1951, Warner Archive Collection, Blu-ray, $21.99
There was a time when, if you viewed yourself as a complex thinker who loved sci-fi, and cared what others might think about you, you had to nurse something of a secret shame.
By mid-century, popular cinema in this country was dominated by Westerns, now that color was an option, and directors of wide-open spaces fell in love with the expansiveness of CinemaScope. Westerns were made by directors Americans grew to respect: people like John Ford and Howard Hawks. The genre could have an element of guilty comfort, to be sure; many cheapjack Westerns were akin to that last drop of tainted water in a prairie dog hole long after the rains came. But the best of them were prairie operas: Shakespearean fare with holsters rather than scabbards.
But sci-fi? That was about human-sized bugs with eyes like blinking copper pancakes, actors rather longer on histrionics than chops, whose performances could often be assessed by how convincingly they bunched up their brows to express confusion about how runoff from the nearby atomic energy plant had produced this latest bit of mutant nastiness.
Now we have Comic-Con and the galloping space operas of the Star Wars films, whose toyetic hold on society as cultural forces eclipses their status as films and stories. But 1950s sci-fi is another genre entirely. I watch more of it than ever these days, because I am certain that no genre of film, in any period, is more relevant to our digital dung heap of an age, with its emphasis on anxiety, fragmentation, turning on each other, and our way of curb-stomping connectivity as we become less human by the latest refresh of the news cycle.
One of the best sci-fi pictures of the 1950s was made, as it happens, by one of our two greatest directors of Westerns, who was also a master of the screwball comedy and the romance-noir genre. I am talking about Howard Hawks, whose films were always oriented around talk—not talkiness, which is different, but real talk, captured in films that immersed the viewer in relationships that developed verbally, just as they do in the real world.
Hawks wasn’t a sci-fi guy, and the only sci-fi film he really directed was one he didn’t even take credit for. That film is The Thing from Another World, which has recently been handsomely, lovingly issued on Blu-ray by Warner Archive. Along with 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you can do no better with sci-fi cinema. Nor can you do better in terms of all-time masterwork cinema: Hawks’s film can hang proudly with more familiar mainstays like Ford’s The Searchers, Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past.
The Thing, as the title is commonly truncated, was based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 novella, Who Goes There? Good sci-fi prose is clear, despite its venturing into dimensions beyond our regular world. Campbell’s was not, managing to be both turgid and turbid. Charles Lederer worked with Hawks to both slash and grow the original story, which is about researchers in the Arctic battling an alien shape-shifter, which would be the focal point of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake. The 1951 version features a plant-like creature in humanoid form, played by James Arness, later to be Marshal Dylan on Gunsmoke. But here he is a sort of vampiric carrot, the arrived outsider who tests the bonds of the insiders.
Hawks’s editor, Christian Nyby, was the nominal director. There has been some debate over why he received this billing, when the film is clearly Hawks-helmed. Perhaps Hawks sought to do his friend a solid and boost his career; perhaps Hawks was merely to serve as overseer, and then both agreed that Hawks should command. Whatever the reason, Nyby never was bothered by allegations that his director’s credit was a hollow one. Cast members spoke later of Nyby walking to the edge of the sets and consulting with Hawks, then returning to try a scene or a camera set-up a different way.
No matter. You know Hawks when you see Hawks, and you know Hawks when you hear Hawks. Like the best of his films, The Thing has been directed to show us how people come together, via rapport, and how bonds fragment, as rapport breaks down.
The plot is pointed in The Thing. A U.S. Air Force crew deploys a portion of its members to check out an Arctic crash site. They find an object buried under the ice. Each man walks to the edge of the object, and in an overhead shot we see that they are now standing in a great circle. This is pure cinema, when words are not necessary to convey the meaning inside of our heads: in this case, “Damn, that is a flying saucer.” An attempt to extricate the saucer from the ice destroys it, but they do find a frozen creature—our Mr. Arness in plant form—who is brought back to base inside of his ice-prison block, a chill rectilinear portent.
He’s accidentally defrosted, the ice block melts, and carrot-man is loose, to feed on the blood of the base’s dogs. Despite this being the North Pole, we are in a hothouse of paranoia.
It is here that the film’s contemporary resonances come into view. I believe that the more you hit the refresh button on your social media pages, to see what has changed, the more layers of your soul you pare away. Shave them right off. We are connected globally, but we become prisoners of whatever room we are in. We fail to communicate in person because we are busy refreshing as we get better at dying. We become prisoners within a particular digital prism, held in abeyance, with no forward motion.
So it goes at the base as the men question each other’s motives. A scientist among them is willing to risk human life in an attempt to communicate with the plant-humanoid. Walls do not literally close in, but as the film advances, spaces get narrower. Bodies fit less well in passages. The base takes on qualities of chambers of the heart, with their walls desiccated, drawn closer to each other as if flow were becoming harder and harder.
William Sloane, an academic and author of two excellent sci-fi books in the 1930s, once wrote, “Science fiction, at its best, is truly fiction, and fiction is a form of vicarious experience.” The phrase “vicarious experience” is key—our lives have become extended forms of vicarious experiences, to the point that we practice self-vampirization, which is what the men of The Thing realize they are on the verge of, lest they deal with this creature.
At the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we find the hero, still human, on a California freeway, begging people—who doubtless think their lives are exceedingly busy and must get to where they are going as quickly as possible—to stop their cars, to assist him, for he has knowledge to share. That knowledge, of course, is that humans have literally become pod people. Life can certainly feel like that in our current age, as though there should be a secret handshake that the still-living greet each other with, so as to signal that they have yet to be claimed as a number of the walking dead.
As our man on the freeway sees car after car zoom past him—nobody really cares—it’s worth noting that Hawks was the least passive of movie directors. Galled by what he had seen in Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 film High Noon, with Gary Cooper as an outnumbered, outgunned sheriff who solicits the help of townsfolk, he clapped back with 1959’s Rio Bravo, a film about men badly outnumbered and outgunned holding a man in a jail cell and asking no help from anyone. We are tasked with the obligations of duty; one of those, for a Hawksian character, is being an individual of self-determination, conscience, active free will, clear thinking, and self-reflection, often aided by conversation with those with whom one has rapport (or with whom one seeks rapport). In Hawks’s films individuals serve, for other individuals, as mirrors; whereas, now, they serve as bolsterers and boosters of our platitude-lined echo chambers—which is what the base in The Thing from Another World increasingly approaches.
When the monster carrot is destroyed, thanks to some especially human ingenuity, there is an assertion of free will unlike any I’ve ever seen in cinema. We see unnatural order reversed, and natural order restored. The plant-humanoid is essentially fried via electrocution as it attempts to navigate its way through a chamber towards the men. It’s a torturous scene. This isn’t a jolt of electricity, a quick zap before the credits roll. The death scene protracts. It lasts. It lingers. It is death as the close of a James Brown show, with the hardest working man refusing to vacate the stage. As the men watch, and we watch, it is difficult not to think that we can, easily, end up doing a version of that jolting, and protracted dying, to ourselves. The scene lasts until James Arness’s enormous, 6’7” frame has been reduced to ash, leaving no trace. All this is the product of sustained, active human effort. One cannot be too active in these matters.
The claustrophobia lifts. There is a change in the rhythms and inflections of interaction and discourse, as though natural human rapport has been actuated. The lid has been lifted off the shoebox, and oxygen circulates again for the creatures inhabiting it. The perceived external monster—and we are not even sure if this creature was such a being—was nothing compared to the real internal monster. The plant-humanoid feeds on fragmentation, in a more debilitating manner than it had fed on the blood of dogs, just minutes before.
The film signs off with a tagline that is the linguistic equivalent of that final freeway scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. “Watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!” Keep looking indeed. And if there was any doubt, remember: the sky is us, the sky is you.