The Thing-a-Thon: The Thing (1951)

Hollywood’s first adaptation of Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” premiered in 1951, and re-branded the story forever after as The Thing. The now-classic film was well-reviewed at the time of its premiere, and was instantly beloved by a young generation of sci-fi and horror fans. These fans went on to praise the film for generations to come, often doing so, alas, by putting down John Carpenter’s far more faithful remake. 

Among those who grew-up admiring the 1950’s film was actually John Carpenter himself, who showed clips of The Thing in Halloween (1978), and then directed the remake of The Thing in 1982.

Authorship of the 1951 The Thing is also widely contested -- much as is Poltergeist (1982), in the modern era. Some scholars have long believed the film was directed by Howard Hawks. They note the presence of his trademark overlapping dialogue, the jaunty esprit-de-corps among the male characters, and the presence of a Hawksian woman (Margaret Sheridan’s Nikki) in the mix.  

Others, meanwhile, believe that the credited director, Christian Nyby is responsible for the film’s final shape…only with considerable input from producer Hawks. Nyby  (who died in 1993) was never shy about the fact that, as director, he frequently solicited Hawks’ guidance, and sought to emulate his trademark style.

Either way, the 1951 film is whip-smart, fast-paced, and possesses at least one jump scare that is still effective today, more than a half-century after its release. The fifties film also ends with a classic line of warning (that seems to have informed the denouement of John Carpenter’s The Fog [1980]): “Keep watching the skies.”

The 1950’s The Thing changes a great number of details from the Campbell novella, and whatever its cinematic values, cannot be considered a faithful adaptation of the literary source material. For example: the action is moved from the South Pole to the North Pole, and the alien is no longer a shape-shifting creature, but an “intellectual carrot” that remains locked in humanoid form throughout the film. This shift in the alien’s biological nature means that the famous blood test scene of the novella is not necessary in the drama and, accordingly, omitted.

Also, women are present for the first time in the story, in this version of The Thing, and the literary protagonists (McReady, Copper, Blair, etc.) are not present. Even the precipitating incident of the novella is altered significantly in the Nyby/Hawks film. Here, the alien is melted from its ice block by mere accident (an electric blanket is draped over it).  And, the Thing has not been frozen in the ice for long at all.

In fact, it landed in the ice from space just a day before the action commences.

The basic, balanced approach or philosophy of Campbell’s literary tale -- noting both the yin and yang of the scientific mind -- is also altered significantly for the Hawks/Nyby film, which is clearly the product of a jingoistic era in American history. Science, as represented by Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), is seen in the film to be arrogant, impractical, and downright delusional.  It’s a good thing, indeed, the film suggests, that military men are on hand to make decisions that -- even if they fail to advance knowledge -- protect the (red-blooded) American way of life.

Indeed, this version of The Thing (1951) might be remembered, primarily for the context from it which arose: the Cold War with the “Red” Soviets.

Here, the Thing is an avatar for inhuman, un-American communism. Where Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), Nikki, and his Hendry’s men are all fast-talking, colorful figures who clearly enjoy sex, the Thing boasts no such individuality or desire. Instead, it is a blood-less, asexual thing that can reproduce identical clones without sex. It is a godless, communist Thing.

In this context, the scientists featured in the film are deluded egg-heads who, because of their foolishness, can’t see which side of the war they should be on.

Sadly, the anti-communist nature of the story is joined by essentially, an anti-intellectual argument.  Dr. Carrington’s point of view is made to seem foolish, and nonsensical, in an attempt to discredit those who would seek to communicate with beings that are unlike us. Here, communication is seen as foolish, and science as arrogant.

You can’t talk to commies. 

Kill a commie for Christ, instead.

The rather un-subtle presentation of such views don’t hold up particularly well, today, and actually don’t bear that much scrutiny, even in the era of release. The film notes, for example that scientists “split the atom,” but let’s face it, a military man -- like the sort championed as protagonists here -- is the one who ordered atomic bombs dropped in warfare.

There’s plenty of blame to go around there (for tampering in God’s domain), which The Thing, in its two-dimensional thinking, doesn’t acknowledge.

Although The Thing stacks the deck against its primary scientist character, it is nonetheless a jaunty, fast-moving picture, and one that, even considering its age, produces memorable imagery, and a surfeit of chills too.

“Only science can conquer it.”

On November 1st, a meteor changes altitude and direction upon entry into Earth’s atmosphere and 20,000 tons of steel crash into the ice of the North Pole.

Captain Pat Hendry (Tobey) of the U.S. Air Force is ordered by his superior, General Fogerty (David McMann) to proceed with his men to investigate the crash. Going along for the ride is a reporter, Mr. Scott (Douglas Spencer), who can sniff a good story.

Hendry is more excited, however, to visit the North Pole base and rendezvous with lovely Nikki Nicholson (Sheridan), than he is in contending with arrogant Dr. Carrington (Cornthwaite) and investigating the mystery. 

Out on the ice, Hendry, his men, and the scientists uncover the wreckage of a flying saucer in the ice. They attempt to clear it of the ice field with Thermite charges, but end up destroying the vessel instead. After the explosion, they find a life-form buried in the ice, and bring it back to the camp.

There, the creature is inadvertently thawed out when an electric blanket is placed nearby.

Once awake, the alien things proves violent and hostile, slitting the throats of several men, and hanging them upside down in the green house. Dr. Carrington determines that the alien is made of vegetable matter, and can reproduce itself by planting seeds in Earth soil…and nurturing them on human blood.

Though Dr. Carrington feels empathy for the creature (“It’s a stranger in a strange land!”), Hendry seeks to destroy it, fearing that the monster is the vanguard of an alien invasion.

Using electricity, the Air Force men destroy the alien, and Mr. Scott finally has his story of danger from above.

Keep watching the skies!

“I doubt very much that it can die.”

The most fascinating aspect of the Nyby/Hawks The Thing is the manner in which it sets up the opposition between red-blooded American men, and the no-blooded “vegetable” matter from space.
The mind boggles.

Pat Hendry, our fast-talking protagonist, is depicted, without exaggeration, as a groping lady’s man. In fact, Nikki actually ties Hendry down in a chair, at one point, so he can’t grope her while she is trying to talk to him. Hendry is thus the epitome of an American male of the era: cocky, confident, sure of what he wants, and “red blooded” to the hilt. He sees what he wants, and won’t be deterred from attempting to get it, whether consent has been given or not.

Hendry’s leadership is based on the idea that he is “one of the guys,” joshing and joking with his underlings, and trading quips, constantly, with them. The overlapping dialogue suggests a club, at least of a sort: Hendry, Nikki, Scotty, and the other men are members. They are individuals, of course, but working towards a common purpose. Scotty talks about Freedom of Speech, but still follows Hendry into battle. Nikki possesses compassion for her boss, Carrington, but still sells him out to Hendry when Carrington trends towards instability.

According to Geert Hofstede, America is a country of individual personality, and we see that individualism reflected in these primary heroic characters. They may have different points of view, but they joyfully banter about those points of view, and share a common purpose.

The Thing is a very different animal.

Dr. Carrington notes that its development has not been “handicapped by emotional or sexual factors.” So it desires neither friends, nor romantic coupling. It feels “no pain or pleasure as we know it,” Carrington suggests, with envy. And so again, we must consider the monster a stand-in or surrogate for blood-less, collective communism.

The Thing even commands, after a fashion, a kind of collective: a group of maturing seeds that suck on human blood, but don’t reproduce by sex, and which are all identical. The Thing’s team boasts no individualism, no character, no joy or esprit-de-corps. All are the same. The plan is to grow a horrible army, using humanity as food.

This is an invasion.

Cleverly, human blood is the food, and again, the Thing doesn’t possess that blood, as an intellectual carrot. The idea underlying this physiological is that communism is antithetical to red-blooded American men; so much so that communism wants to feed on it, erecting a giant, faceless army, or hive body to do so.

Universally, films reflect the era in which they were made, so the anti-communist sub-text of The Thing is a product of the film’s historical context and Zeitgeist. The film functions as a brand of propaganda in the early Cold War Era, reminded Americans that they are colorful, romantic, individuals fighting a belief system that doesn’t value any of those qualities, and wishes to destroy them.

The anti-intellectualism in The Thing is more difficult to rationalize by today’s standards. Dr. Carrington is unable to detect the danger of the “monster” and believes wholeheartedly in its superiority (“It’s wiser than we are. I’m sure of it!”)

He believes he is superior to the military men, noting “only science can conquer” the Thing. Carrington also notes, similarly, that the creature is immortal (“I doubt very much that it can die”) and that it has evolved beyond “pleasure as we know it.” He rationalizes its violent nature as a result of the fact that it is a stranger in a strange land.

And what does he get for his hero worship of the Thing? Well, he gets batted away, without a thought, like an insect to be squashed.

Foolish scientist! Stand back and let the military handle this!

Carrington actually says some things that we might reasonably accept as virtues, if only his thoughts were spoken by someone who isn’t an egg-headed idiot. Carrington notes the importance of knowledge, and the concept of sacrifice, for instance, for the advancement of knowledge. He believes that empathy is a virtue, and that communication is something that should be attempted, at least, before lives are lost.

Hendry dismisses all these ideas. As an American military man, he knows the only good communist is a dead one.

What do you do with a vegetable? You boil it. Or you burn it.  And that’s exactly what happens.

The film goes out of its way to validate Hendry’s position and make Carrington look like an utter fool, and it’s not a fair or nuanced depiction, in either case. Both characters are presented in two-dimensional terms: Hendry as a romantic hero (despite his Harvey Weinstein-like approach to relationships with women…), and Carrington as a deluded egghead who may have “book smarts,” but who has never fought and won a war.

The jingoistic, two-dimensional, take-no-prisoners aspect of the film renders it a product of its time, but makes it, by today’s standards, a kind  a piece of propaganda, a thinly-veiled polemic regarding 1950’s anti-communist values. 

In the light of day, now, the film seems paranoid and stereotyped.

This is a shame, because in other ways, The Thing holds up remarkably well. There is a scene, in mid-film, wherein Hendry and his men go to open a door to the green house. They can’t stop talking, however, and so get distracted talking while preparing to open that door. When they do open it, the Thing is standing right there waiting, and attempts to smash them, before Hendry slams the door shut. 

The presence of the Thing -- right there -- is a surprise, and still quite the effective shock.

At other times, the Thing’s strength is well-visualized. We see it, in glacial long shot, throwing and murdering sled dogs, on the ice. It towers over them, and flees (leaving a severed arm) but seems wholly alien.

And the scenes involving Carrington’s “thing” garden are among the creepiest in the whole film. One of the scientists listens to one of the pulsating Thing pods in the garden and notes that it makes a sound “almost like the wail of a newborn that’s hungry.”

What’s it hungry for?

Human blood.

In moments such as these, The Thing generates an atmosphere of genuine terror and eeriness. Nut today, some of the horror falls flat, in part because the heroes -- who never stop talking -- don’t really evidence terror about the ultimate alien horror they confront.  It’s as if they already know, in their hearts, that nothing can beat good old fashioned, red-blooded American pragmatism and know-how. They dismiss science. They dismiss any sense of intercultural communication, out of hand. They just set out to kill that which is unlike them, which -- given how the story plays out -- is the only answer.

The movie would play more effectively today, if the protagonist weren’t so certain of their virtue, and the alien’s lack of same. 


  1. The movie's treatment of Dr. Carrington spoils it for me. I'd have a much higher opinion if it was more balanced.

  2. And just where the heck would alien offspring in space or on another planet get human blood?

  3. For me the only thing that has not aged well is the wise cracking reporter. I swear, at times now I wish the other characters just hauled off an hit him. I so love the scene where the group debates what to with the Thing, thaw or not, and the debate as to whether it may carry germs harmful to humans, or Earthly germs would be harmful to it. Intelligence you don't see in Science Fiction cinema anymore. And the scene where it gets set on fire is one hell of a stunt scene masterpiece.


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