#4 The Thing From Another World (1951)
After September 11, when the story of Flight 93 emerged, I couldn’t help thinking, “What a great movie that willl make some day.” It sounded like a real life mixture of Stagecoach (John Ford) and The Thing From Another World (Howard Hawks, despite rumours to the contrary).
Except with the movie did come out, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. I guess if like me, you’re still not ready to watch United 93, you could always rent The Thing... and pretend.
The Thing… is set in the Antarctic, where a mysterious aircraft has crashed. An Air Force crew rushes to the scene, with a civilian reporter in tow, and meet up with a scientific expedition that’s been encamped on the scene since well before the crash.
Sure enough, there’s an alien aircraft buried under the ice. And one of its “crew” is on the loose…
“… when we first see The Thing,” one critic observes, “he’s not terribly frightening. Sure enough, he’s big and imposing, but he clealy looks human. Furthermore, his spacesuit is peculiar. The top of his suit is a curious double-breasted style not unlike the military dress uniform of Soviet officers. Essentially, if The Day the Earth Stood Still is a left wing commentary of post-WWII global tensions, then The Thing from Another World gives us the right wing perspective.”
Where the original story (and Carpenter’s remake) is a study of paranoia among comrades, Hawks’s film revels in the interworkings of a hardened group of professionals capable of handling any crisis if they stick together. Tobey is the leader of the group and the star of the film, but the characters operate as an ensemble and no one is really given much solo screen time. Their unity is what the film is about (with the point beautifully emphasized visually when they assemble to make the circle on the ice), and anyone familiar with Hawks’s work will know that it is a theme that runs throughout most of his films. (…)
The Thing… also draws the line that would mark most science-fiction films of the 1950s — the conflict between the military and science.
I’d add: Substitute “the military and academia” here today. Dr. Carrington is an arch, cold, cerebral type who insists again and again that we need to “understand” the Thing (which has killed before and is obviously gearing up for a wholesale assault on the base camp), not kill it.
One of my favourite exchanges occurs between Dr. Carrington and one of the soldiers:
Carrington: “But you fools, don’t you understand? Science is more important than life itself! Without science, we never would have split the atom!”
Soldier: “Yeah, that cheered everybody up.”
In the film, the far-away, disembodied “authorities” the Air Force communicate with on the unreliable radio can’t decide whether the creature should be destroyed or spared for “further study” (see “Islam is peace” etc).
Throughout, the men and women are forced to battle The Thing armed only with the meager tools they have at hand, and their own wits and guts.
The Thing from Another World has an unmistakable anti-communist bent (Carrington is practically dressed like a Cossack as he acts as a human shield between the U.S. troops and the alien, pleading to the former that the Thing’s wisdom is simply beyond American comprehension just before it beats the crap out of him).
The uneasy world politics of the early fifties may have inspired the film, but Howard Hawks was careful to provide answers to the questions that his film raised, and to reassure those watching that America’s security was safe in the hands of brave, clever, resourceful men and women, who could be relied upon to rise to any occasion, and deal with any crisis. Despite its flying saucer from somewhere else, its rampaging monster, and its untrustworthy scientist, it is likely that the audiences of 1951 found The Thing to be a strangely comforting experience.
For a writer, perhaps the most intriguing character is newspaper reporter Scotty. We’ve been conditioned to assume that all reporters are raving leftists. And, come to think of it, Scotty looks a lot like Alan Colmes — but a throwaway line addressed to the Air Force crew makes it clear he’s “one of them” in his own way; they needn’t worry about him panicking during the final assault, he tells them, because he too was at “El Alamein, and Bougainville, and Okinawa.”
The Thing from Another World has always been universally acknowledged as a “right wing” film, whether as a compliment or a curse.
But watching it after September 11, the film’s final lines of dialogue are no longer simply stirring, but uncanny.
Anchorage, from Polar Expedition. Can you hear me? Over.
Anchorage, reception clear. Stand by.
Press the button and speak, Scotty.
Tell General Fogarty we’ve sent for Capt. Hendry. He’ll be here in minutes.
Are there any newsmen there? Over.
The place is full of them. Over.
All right. Here’s your story.
North Pole, November rd. Ned Scott reporting.
One of the world’s greatest battles was fought and won by the human race. A handful of American soldiers and civilians… met the first invasion from another planet.
A man by the name of Noah once saved our world with an ark of wood. Here, a few men performed a similar service with an arc of electricity.
A flying saucer, which landed here, and its pilot have been destroyed.
But not without casualties among our own meager forces. I’d like to bring to the microphone the men responsible for our success. But Capt. Hendry is attending to demands over and above the call of duty.
[Hendry's in the background, noodling (in a dignified manner) with his girlfriend]
Dr. Carrington, leader of the scientific expedition… is… recovering from wounds from the battle.
[True, but not really. In spite of everything, Scotty (and director Hawks) want to help Carrington save face. It's just... the right thing to do.]
SOLDIER (sotto voice)
Good for you.
And now, before giving you the details of the battle, 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….