This is like a mashup of a Howard Hawks movie and a 50s scifi film. There are shots where one side of the screen feels like something out of Air Force and the other side of the screen looks like it comes from 20 Million Miles to Earth. It’s an interesting clash of styles that ends up combining together in a very good final act that sees the harder edged male-centric soldiers facing off against the science fiction monster. I don’t think it’s the masterpiece of 50s scifi that some people hold it up as, but it’s a good and entertaining little adventure into the unknown.
A remote research station near the North Pole has encountered something, and they have called the US Army, based at Anchorage, Alaska, in to offer support. Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew fly up and find Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) with a strange story. Off the bat, once we meet Carrington, things don’t feel quite normal. Hendry and his crew feel like Hawksian men. They’re professionals and comrades. They have realistic dialogue talking about women. Carrington is…something else. Where Hendry and his men feel like they could fit into a Hawks movie with ease, Carrington is too well put together, too mannered in performance, and to precise in delivery. He feels like a traditional movie villain to a certain degree.
Anyway, what called the army was a falling object in the sky that behaved contrary to physics, moving upwards on its downwards crash into the ice fifty miles east of the station. It looks like extraterrestrial life has found its way to earth, and it has crash landed in the Arctic. They fly out, accidentally destroy the ship with thermite trying to thaw it out, but recover the lone passenger, thrown from the ship upon the crash but instantly frozen in the ice. There’s debate about what to do with the entity. Do they keep it frozen? Do they thaw it out and dissect it? Does the newspaperman tagging along get to report back to his editor with the story of the century?
When the creature gets thawed out accidentally, it proves to be alive, and the hunt is on. It is an intelligent vegetable (the explanation really didn’t need to go on as long as it does) that needs the nutrition from blood to feed itself. First it attacks the sled dogs, and then it starts to prey on the humans. This is all pretty standard scifi monster stuff, but what sets it apart is the use of the military men in combatting the walking carrot contrasted with the fervent idealism of Carrington, insisting that any violence against the creature is a sin against reason and knowledge. They must allow it to thrive because it represents a million years of knowledge, and that cannot be destroyed.
The effort to come up with a method of killing the creature, immune to gunfire, is to essentially cook it, but what can they do to make it hot enough to fully kill it? Throwing gasoline on it and lighting that on fire (an amazing bit of stuntwork, by the way) only does so much, and with the creature able to even regrow body parts, of limited use. The solution they come up with is believable and clearly laid out while the creature, smart as it is, fights back in interesting ways including shutting of their heat.
I kind of wish the movie was much more focused on the army men fighting the monster, because, I think, that’s where the movie is at its best. The scientists, especially outside of Carrington, are far less interesting and mostly just take up space in the frame. This creates a rather large cast of characters that gets mostly unused. Captain Hendry has a love interest, Nikki played by Margaret Sheridan, and she feels underutilized. The newspaperman doesn’t seem to add a whole lot except a small speech at the end that includes the famous quote about watching the skies. None of this really drags the films down that much since it’s so short (only about 85 minutes), but that’s a lot of characters that don’t really contribute much. I wouldn’t mind a longer cut that does more with them, I think.
Still, it’s a solidly good film that manages to bring its two sides together in an exciting action climax (that Ridley Scott seems to have homaged a bit in Prometheus). It’s a cornerstone of science fiction cinema, and a fun monster movie.
Now, the debate: Who’s the real director here? The credited director, Christian Nyby who was Howard Hawks’ editor for several films before using this as a starting point to a directing career (mostly in television)? Or was it the producer Howard Hawks who was noted to be on set for pretty much the entire production?
I think it’s obviously Nyby. There are heavy Hawks markers here, the crew of professional men and the realistic dialogue that occasionally overlaps namely, but Hawks’ movies have a certain feel. No matter what genre he’s working in, there’s a certain looseness to the affair stemming from how he allowed his actors to improvise, looking for interesting business to do and new lines to say to make things more interesting. The Thing From Another World doesn’t have that feel. In fact, it feels like it’s adhering to a script really closely. Scenes are too often too short (not for their effectiveness, just in comparison to how Hawks worked), and Carrington, as a character, feels like something Hawks would never direct. I think Hawks was there as a helping hand to his friend and editor Nyby (who, apparently, helped save Red River single-handedly), offering advice throughout production, but it was Nyby directing performances, making final calls on where the camera would go, and how closely they kept to the script.
9 thoughts on “The Thing From Another World”
Two of my favorite films, both ‘The Thing From Another World’ and ‘The Thing’ came out of the same short story (who goes there) by the legend, John W. Campbell. I won’t talk about ‘The Thing’ here but I’m glad to chatter about ‘TTFAW’.
I love it, because it’s an attempt at ‘hard sci fi’. You have professional military men encountering some strange shit and they try to solve it with wit, science and guts. Much respect. You cover the plot well, so I won’t re-hash it. I think Carrington and Nikki show the fingerprints of the two different hands on this film.
Carrington is a stereotypical scientist of the type seen in way, way too many movies from the 30’s to the early 70’s. The ones that worship Science like a god. Nikki, on the other hand, is the ‘Hawksian woman’ that gets inserted into pretty much every Howard Hawks movie, whether she fits there or not. Nikki doesn’t fit here and Tess didn’t fit in Red River. Carrington, I argue, is from the first ‘Nyby’ cut of the film, as it were. Nikki comes from Hawks.
Here’s my take on what happened. Hawks wanted to give Nyby a director credit, to help his career. Nyby took a crack at making the movie and flunked it. Hawks stepped in, re-wrote and redirected it, giving us the film that we have now. We DO have that Hawks dialog early in the film with the military men, who all…talk like real men (a Hawks trademark and sad that writing realistic dialog is so rare I have to assign it to only a few writers and directors).
I’d love to know the truth, but I’m fine as it is.
Love this movie. But I love The Thing more.
I think that’s a pretty good guess at what could have happened. There are many a tale of heavy-handed producers overriding directors for one reason or another, and I could imagine Hawks, well-worn in the industry, knowing the ins and outs of production and craft so well that he ends up just pretty much taking the reins at certain points.
Fun Fact: After this film, Robert Cornthwaite a number of offers for other films. When he showed up to auditions, casting folks said “Who’s this young guy? We wanted that elderly actor, Robert Cornthwaite!”
That’s a sad typecasting situation. You don’t even fit the role that you’re typecast for.
Mark Andrew Edwards’s theory about the Nyby/Hawks question sounds very plausible. And I think we get way more Hawks than Nyby in the final solution. Besides the broad Hawks themes, there’s plenty of little touches that I can’t imagine Nyby on his own coming up with. Like Captain Hendry ducking his head and rubbing the side of his nose. That’s straight out of Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo. And then there’s the scene where one of Hendry’s crew calls back to Sergeant York’s “wetting the gunsight” (which I think Hawks also gave a shout-out to in Ball Of Fire).
Oh well–provenance aside, this is a wonderfully entertaining movie, one that I can watch every single time it comes on tv. The scene where they set the Thing on fire is just nuts! But I think my favorite moment is when Captain Hendry tells the guy in the radio shack to keep the door locked because a gun’s no good, then walks out the door while the guy shouts Waddaya mean a gun’s no–SLAM. It’s like an inversion of the Hawksian overlapping dialogue, or something.
You highlight the professionalism of the military men, and I agree that they are the better part of the movie. But aside from Dr. Carrington, the scientists have their own professionalism as well, each with a particular area of expertise, and–when Carrington’s not bullying them, that is–they have the same kind of quietly competent interactions as the military guys do. Heck, they even have their own Hawksian Woman in Mrs. Chapman.
Even The Thing is a professional. Dig: he’s a pilot, smart, on a dangerous mission, and talks even less than Gary Cooper.
Carrington really is the one part that doesn’t belong. But I think he’s not so much a Villain as a Naive Egghead with a tyrant streak. I love that he doesn’t get killed, as is the birthright of every proper movie Villain; instead, the Thing simply swats him away so that the rest of Us Professionals can get on with our High Noon showdown.
Can you tell I love this movie?