Kenneth Tobey - Capt. Patrick Hendry
Margaret Sheridan - "Nikki" Nicholson
Robert Cornthwaite - Dr. Arthur Carrington
Douglas Spencer - Ned "Scotty" Scott
James Arness - The Thing
Christian Nyby - Director
Howard Hawks - Producer
Charles Lederer - Screenwriter
Russell Harlan - Cinematographer
Dimitri Tiomkin - Film Score
A marvellous film, The Thing's virtues, though celebrated by some (including writer/director Michael Crichton who has called it "the best Science Fiction film ever made"), have been partially obscured by two controversies, one major, one minor, that have surrounded it since its initial release. The minor one--who directed it, its credited director, Christian Nyby, or its producer Howard Hawks?--is easily cleared up. Hawks bought the rights to the story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell (better known as the legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction) in the forties, commissioned the script, mapped out the film, rehearsed the actors and supervised the actual shooting as well as acting as the film's producer.
The fihn's credited director, Nyby (who didn't direct again until 1957 and the mediocre Hell on Devil's Island) had edited several of Hawks' films and, as a favor, to enable him to get his director's ticket, Hawks allowed Nyby to direct the film under his close control. But even more revealing than these "facts" are the style, look and themes of the film which are undoubtedly Hawksian. In particular, the overlapping dialogue and the relaxed performances of the actors confirm that the film was "made" by Hawks.
Far more interesting, and revealing of the vast gap between Science Fiction and Science Fiction cinema, was its reception by Science Fiction critics and practitioners. In contrast to the generally favorable reception the film received, they savaged it as, as one critic put it, "a radical betrayal of its source," for transforming Campbell's shape-changing alien into a monster, and for its attitude to science in general. The response of journalist Douglas Spencer after listening to Robert Cornthwaite's professor explain what the creature is, "an intellectual carrot, the mind boggles," was widely quoted as exemplifying Hawks / Nyby's crude concept of science and the film was blamed by many for initiating the monster cycle of Science Fiction films which rapidly supplanted the documentary / realist approach of Destination Moon (1950) which was generally admired by the Science Fiction fraternity.
This argument is misplaced--Spencer is, after all, a journalist whose comments, notably the closing injunction to "Watch the skies" which has passed into legend, are clearly indicted by Hawks as being cliches, quick and crude descriptions of the situation. Moreover, although Cornthwaite's scientist is presented as misguided in his commitment to pure knowledge, he is depicted by Hawks with sympathy as a professional.
More imporantly, in comparison to, say, Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1952), one of the best novels of the period and representative of the interests of the writers of the time, as Science Fiction, The Thing is undeniably old-fashioned. What the reception of the Science Fiction fraternity to The Thing represented was the fear that just as the genre was becoming respectable, the cinema was resurrecting the dreaded bug-eyed-monster syndrome of yesteryear. In this they were correct but, in choosing The Thing to blame, they seriously misread the film. Needless to say, the movie is far more interesting than the debates which have surrounded it.
Hawks' only other venture into the genre, Monkey Business (1952) reveals the dangers of man's anarchic tendencies when unleashed by the drug B-4. The Thing, described by Cornthwaite as feeling "No pleasure, no pain . . . no emotion . . . Our superior in every way," represents those dangers in extremis. Like the creature in Alien (1979), the thing wants nothing more than to survive and procreate at whatever cost to those around it. B-4 removes the necessary inhibitions that are the mark of social existence, but the creature in The Thing has no such inhibitions from the start.
This view is imbedded in the very structure of the film which perpetually contrasts the group working in unison to a common purpose, as in the marvellous sequence where the individual members of the group of scientists and soldiers sent to investigate the sighting of a mysterious aircraft in the Arctic slowly spread themselves round the shape of the frozen UFO until they form a circle around the spaceship. As individuals they create danger for the group when they act independently, like the soldier who accidentally unfreezes the creature and Cornthwaite who tries to grow more creatures when he discovers that it is a plant.
Only the individual actions of Kenneth Tobey, the natural group leader, who represents concerned instinctive behavior, as when he quickly slams shut the door to the greenhouse after opening it to reveal James Arness's creature, and Margaret Sheridan (who has the charming, if unscientific, idea that, if the creature is a vegetable, then "cooking" it might kill it) are underwritten by Hawks. Hawks' assumptions about extra-terrestrial life are undeniably conservative (compared to those of Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977, for example), but their articulation results in one of the best Science Fiction movies of all times.
John Carpenter's version of The Thing (1982) is a revision rather than a remake because it goes directly back to John W. Campbell's original story, which features a shape-changing alien, for its inspiration.
--PHIL HARDY, ed. from The Film Encyclopedia:
Science Fiction, 1984
A selection of The Thing related films.
Find The Thing on eBay.com
A selection of The Thing in books.
A History of Horror
THE ATOMIC AGE
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