The Thing from Another World, sometimes referred to as just The Thing, is a 1951 American black-and-white science fiction-horror film, directed by Christian Nyby, produced by Edward Lasker for Howard Hawks’ Winchester Pictures Corporation, and released by RKO Pictures.
The film’s storyline concerns a US Air Force crew and scientists who find a crashed flying saucer and a humanoid body frozen in the Arctic ice, near the craft. Returning to their remote research outpost with the body still in a block of ice, they are forced to defend themselves against the still alive and malevolent plant-based alien when it is accidentally defrosted.
James Arness plays The Thing, but he is difficult to recognize in costume and makeup due to both low lighting and other effects used to obscure his features.
The Thing from Another World is based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell (writing under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart).
In Anchorage, journalist Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer), looking for a story, visits the Air Force officer’s club, where he meets Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), his co-pilot Lieutenant Eddie Dykes, (a friend of Scott’s), and flight navigator Ken “Mac” MacPherson. General Fogarty orders Hendry to fly to Polar Expedition Six at the North Pole, per a request from its lead scientist, Nobel laureate Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite); Carrington has radioed that an unusual aircraft has crashed nearby. With Scott, Corporal Barnes, crew chief Bob, and a pack of sled dogs, Hendry pilots a Douglas C-47 transport aircraft to the remote outpost.
Upon arrival, Scott and the airmen meet radio operator Tex, a woman named Mrs. Chapman, a man named Lee, who is one of two cooks, and the Inuit dog handlers. Also present are scientists Vorhees, Stern, Redding, Stone, Laurence, Wilson, Ambrose, Auerbach, Olson, Mrs. Chapman’s husband Dr. Chapman, and Carrington. Hendry later rekindles his romance with Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), Carrington’s secretary. Several scientists fly with the airmen to the crash site, finding a large object buried beneath ice. As they spread out to determine its shape, they realise they are standing in a circle; they have discovered a flying saucer. The team attempts to melt the ice covering the saucer with thermite, but a violent reaction with the craft’s metal alloy completely destroys it. Their Geiger counter, however, detects a frozen body buried nearby; it is excavated in a large block of ice and loaded aboard the transport. They fly out as an Arctic storm closes in on the site.
Hendry assumes command of the outpost and, pending instruction from General Fogarty, denies Scott permission to send out his story; he also denies the scientists’ demands to examine the body. Tex sends an update to Fogarty, and the airmen settle in as the storm arrives. A watch is posted; Barnes relieves McPherson and, disturbed by the creature’s appearance in the clearing ice, covers it with an electric blanket, which he does not realize is plugged in. The block slowly thaws and the creature, still alive, escapes into the storm and is attacked by the sled dogs. The airmen recover the creature’s severed arm after the attack.
The scientists examine the arm, concluding that the alien is an advanced form of plant life. Carrington is convinced of its superiority to humans and becomes intent on communicating with it. The airmen begin a search, which leads to the outpost’s greenhouse. Carrington stays behind with Vorhees, Stern, and Laurence, having noticed evidence of alien activity. They discover a third sled dog hidden away, which has had all of its blood drained; the carnivorous plant creature feeds on blood. Carrington and the scientists post a secret watch of their own, hoping to encounter the alien before the airmen find it.
The next morning, the airmen continue their search. Tex informs them that Fogarty is aware of their discovery and demands further information, now prevented by the fierce storm. Stern appears, badly injured, and tells the group that the creature has killed Auerbach and Olson. When the airmen investigate, the alien attacks them; they manage to barricade it inside the greenhouse. Hendry confronts Carrington and orders him to remain in his lab and quarters.
Carrington, obsessed with the alien, shows Nicholson and the other scientists his experiment: using seeds taken from the severed arm, he has been growing small alien plants by feeding them from the blood plasma supply at the base. Hendry finds the plasma missing when it is needed to treat Stern, which leads him to Carrington. Fogarty transmits orders to keep the creature alive, but it escapes from the greenhouse and attacks the airmen in their quarters. They douse it with buckets of kerosene and set it afire, forcing it to retreat into the storm. After regrouping, they realize that their building’s temperature is falling rapidly; the furnaces have stopped working, sabotaged by the alien. They retreat to the station’s generator room to keep warm, and rig an electrical “fly trap”. The alien continues to stalk them, but at the last moment, Carrington attempts to communicate, pleading with the creature. It knocks him aside, walks into the trap, and is electrocuted and reduced to a pile of ash.
When the weather clears, Scotty is finally able to file his “story of a lifetime” by radio to a roomful of reporters in Anchorage. He begins his broadcast with a warning: “Tell the world. Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies”.
- Margaret Sheridan as Nikki Nicholson.
- Kenneth Tobey as Captain Patrick Hendry.
- Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Arthur Carrington.
- Douglas Spencer as Ned Scott (Scotty).
- James Young as Lt. Eddie Dykes.
- Dewey Martin as Bob (Crew Chief).
- Robert Nichols as Lt. Ken MacPherson.
- William Self as Corporal Barnes.
- Eduard Franz as Dr. Stern.
- Paul Frees as Dr. Voorhees (uncredited).
- John Dierkes as Dr. Chapman (uncredited).
- George Fenneman as Dr. Redding (uncredited).
- Everett Glass as Dr. Wilson (uncredited).
- Edmund Breon as Dr. Ambrose (uncredited).
- Norbert Schiller as Dr. Laurence (uncredited).
- Sally Creighton as Mrs. Chapman.
- Nicholas Byron as Tex Richards (uncredited).
- David McMahon as General Fogerty (uncredited).
- James Arness as “The Thing”.
Unusually for the era, no actors are named during the film’s dramatic “slow burning letters through background” opening title sequence, while the cast credits appear at the end of the film. No performers are named in the film’s advertising graphics. Many cast members with significant speaking parts are not credited. Appearing in a small role was George Fenneman, who at the time was gaining fame as Groucho Marx’s announcer on the popular quiz show You Bet Your Life. Fenneman later said he had difficulty with the overlapping dialogue in the film.
The film was partly shot in Glacier National Park and interior sets built at a Los Angeles ice storage plant.
The film took full advantage of the national feelings in America at the time in order to help enhance the horror elements of the film’s storyline. The film reflected a post-Hiroshima skepticism about science and prevailing negative views of scientists who meddle with things better left alone. In the end it is American servicemen and several sensible scientists who win the day over the alien invader.
The film was loosely adapted by Charles Lederer, with uncredited rewrites from Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht, from the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell; the story was first published in Astounding Science Fiction under Campbell’s pseudonym Don A. Stuart (Campbell had just become Astounding’s managing editor when his novella appeared in its pages).
The film’s screenplay changes the fundamental nature of the alien as presented in Campbell’s 1938 novella: Lederer’s “Thing” is a humanoid life form whose cellular structure is closer to vegetation, although it must feed on blood to survive; reporter Scott even refers to it in the film as a “super carrot”. The internal, plant-like structure of the creature makes it impervious to bullets (but not to other destructive forces). Campbell’s “Thing” is a life form capable of assuming the physical and mental characteristics of any living thing it encounters; this characteristic was later realised in John Carpenter’s adaptation of the novella, the 1982 film The Thing.
There is still debate as to whether the film was directed by Howard Hawks, with Christian Nyby receiving the credit so that Nyby could obtain his Director’s Guild membership or whether Nyby directed it with considerable input in both screenplay and directing advice from producer Hawks for Hawks’ Winchester Pictures, which released the film through RKO Radio Pictures Inc. Hawks gave Nyby only $5,460 of RKO’s $50,000 director’s fee and kept the rest, but Hawks always denied that he directed the film.
Cast members disagree on Hawks’ and Nyby’s contributions: Tobey said that “Hawks directed it, all except one scene” while, on the other hand, Fenneman said that “Hawks would once in a while direct, if he had an idea, but it was Chris’ show”. Cornthwaite said that “Chris always deferred to Hawks … Maybe because he did defer to him, people misinterpreted it”. Although Self has said that “Hawks was directing the picture from the sidelines”, he also has said that “Chris would stage each scene, how to play it. But then he would go over to Howard and ask him for advice, which the actors did not hear … Even though I was there every day, I don’t think any of us can answer the question. Only Chris and Howard can answer the question”.
One of the film’s stars, William Self, later became President of 20th Century Fox Television. In describing the production, Self said, “Chris was the director in our eyes, but Howard was the boss in our eyes”.
The Thing from Another World was released in April 1951. By the end of that year, the film had accrued $1,950,000 in distributors’ domestic (US and Canada) rentals, making it the year’s 46th biggest earner, beating all other science fiction films released that year, including The Day The Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide.
The film makes an appearance in the 1978 John Carpenter film Halloween, which the protagonist watches on TV. Carpenter would go on to direct a remake of The Thing in 1982.
- A colourised version of the original film was released in 1989 on VHS by Turner Home Entertainment; it was billed as an “RKO Color Classic”.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Christian Nyby.
- Producer(s): Edward Lasker and Howard Hawks.
- Writer(s): Charles Lederer, Howards Hawks (uncredited), and Ben Hecht (uncredited).
- Music: Dmitri Tiomkin.
- Cinematography: Russell Harlan.
- Editor(s): Roland Gross.
- Production: Winchester Pictures Corporation.
- Distributor(s): RKO Radio Pictures.
- Release Date: 27 April 1951.
- Running Time: 87 minutes.
- Rating: PG.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.