The Thing from Another World

I bring you a warning: Everyone 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.

Those words quoted above are the last lines of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951), a plea for caution and vigilance directed at an audience which had just spent an hour and a half having the pants scared off it and, beyond the world of the movies, was taking its first tentative steps into a (fairly) new decade where politics and science were moving ahead in a challenging fashion. As the Cold War tightened its icy grip on the world, Hollywood was serving up its own slice of chilling paranoia where the threat posed by unknown, malignant forces from without was never far away.

The wind is blowing cold in Anchorage, Alaska, intruding from time to time on the warm interiors of the USAF base. It’s here that we first see Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), playing cards with  his men, easy in the company of those he knows well. And it’s also here that news first filters through of a downed, unidentified aircraft. The scientists at a polar research station picked up images of it but they can’t be sure what it is. So Hendry and his crew are sent north to see if they can assist in locating, identifying and dealing with whatever came down out on the ice. Measurements at the research station suggest it must have been something large that dropped from the skies, and sure enough that proves to be the case. To the amazement of those present, it would appear they have come upon a genuine flying saucer. However, their pleasure is to be short-lived as the efforts to melt the surrounding ice lead to the destruction of the craft. Yet all is not lost; a body remains intact, encased in a solid block of ice. Naturally, this one surviving element is brought back to the research station to be kept until it has been decided how to proceed, although a moment’s carelessness sees events take a different and altogether more dangerous turn. That slab of polar ice contains something strong, potentially indestructible, and hungry.

The Thing from Another World sees Howard Hawks listed as producer while Christian Nyby gets the directing credit. According to most of those involved, that’s how the job was divided up although the finished product clearly shows a considerable bit of input from Hawks – he said himself that he worked on the trademark overlapping dialogue that’s to be found throughout the film. So, while this is clearly a Sci-Fi movie, and an iconic and influential one at that, I think it’s fair to say it’s a Hawks movie first and foremost. Even  though I don’t wish to drag this piece too deeply into comparison territory, the fact that this John W Campbell story was remade in 1982 by John Carpenter and has a markedly different feel should tell us that. The Hawks movie (as indeed could be said of the Carpenter film) is a product of its time, both politically and sociologically, and I suppose the same can be said of the filmmaker himself.

On the simplest level, a Hawks film is typically recognizable from its characteristic setting or circumstances – a tight, self-contained group bound together by their sense of professionalism, duty and mutual respect, and of course the affection that simultaneously gives rise to and grows out of their cohesion.  Any Hawks film, and The Thing from Another World is no exception,  is as much about the various bits of business and repartee that arise from the close interaction of the group. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of social unity; people of significantly different backgrounds all (well, let’s say largely) come together as a result of their shared sense of professionalism – and I feel that in the world of Hawks professionalism frequently equates to humanity – to meet adversity head-on. There’s a particular kind of inclusiveness implicit here, something that’s quite common in post-war cinema. This is what I mean when I speak of Hawks being a product of his time; I’m referring not to the Cold Warrior warning of external threats but the man who adheres to the concept of unity and communal strength. Above all else, I see that as the central message of The Thing from Another World, and that’s why I consider it a Hawks movie as much as, or more than, a Sci-Fi movie. Look at the 1982 version of the story (and I’m not implying any criticism of it here)  and its emphasis on suspicion, distrust and division and the point ought to be evident. Hawks, because of his own sensibilities and perhaps because of the era he lived in, could not have made The Thing from Another World in any other way.

Kenneth Tobey had been doing lots of bit parts and getting walk on roles before this opportunity came along. He was never to become a big star but, in among his other credits, he would star in another couple of entertaining Sci-Fi pictures, It Came from Beneath the Sea and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. His role here is of the square-jawed and decisive variety, and he handles that aspect very well. However, the heroes in Hawks’ films generally need to be capable of carrying off the inevitable sharp humor too, and Tobey does have the required twinkle in his eyes when necessary. Some of this comes out of the by-play with the members of his flight crew but it’s more obvious in the sparring with Margaret Sheridan. She was under contract to Hawks but her screen credits are limited and I don’t remember seeing her in anything else, which I think is regrettable.

Seeing as this is mostly an ensemble piece, where the group is arguably as important a character as any individual, there aren’t too many stand-out performances. Still, Douglas Spencer (who gets to deliver the lines at the top of this piece) gets a chance to shine as does the rather clinical Robert Cornthwaite along with Dewey Martin and John Dierkes. And of course, there is the Thing itself to consider – James Arness was a considerable presence in more conventional roles and his physicality is used to excellent effect in this film. He has no dialogue and is only glimpsed for long stretches, and when he does get more screen time he’s still kept mainly in the shadows. Nevertheless, his job was to intimidate and threaten, and he does that very successfully.

In addition to those elements I already mentioned, there’s so much more to enjoy about this production, not the least of which is the strong sense of claustrophobia achieved by Russell Harlan’s moody photography, or the eerie scoring of Dimitri Tiomkin. With regard to the story, I haven’t gone into the classic moral dilemma faced by so many movie scientists over how to approach new discoveries that also pose a major threat. The fact is this is a film demanding and deserving of a far longer and more detailed analysis than I’m going to try to deliver here. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on a few of the auteurist principles which caught my attention, but you’re welcome to raise any points you wish in the comments section. The Thing from Another World is a superior piece of classic Sci-Fi from a superior filmmaker, it’s an easy recommendation.

Other views on the movie available from Laura & Jeff.


76 thoughts on “The Thing from Another World

  1. A good account! Pace le0pard13I’m not sure the movie is too often overlooked these days — certainly not in sf circles, where it’s regard as one of the great classics.

    Unlike the unfortunate musical version, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used to Be from Another World.

    • Thanks very much, John!
      I don’t know whether the film is overlooked so much as overshadowed to an extent. I get the impression that Carpenter’s 1982 remake draws more attention. The 2011 remake/reboot/prequel, not so much I think.

      • I get the impression that Carpenter’s 1982 remake draws more attention.

        It’s my impression, chatting with sf people, that the 1982 generally gets referred to as exactly that: “the remake.”

        • I’ll take your word on that, John. Going purely from an online perspective here, I seem to see the Carpenter film mentioned more often, though I have no idea if there is a Sci-Fi consensus on which version is the preferred one. I guess that probably varies from person to person, and that’s OK with me. 🙂

      • The 2011 remake/reboot/prequel, not so much I think.

        Thanks to this remark of yours, we finally watched this version. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The moviemakers kind of missed the point, didn’t they?

        • I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t say really, although the entire premise made it sound like a waste of time – I’d have thought it has to be pretty obvious where it’s all going.
          I remember there were a lot of gripes about it before it came out, and then I seem to recall poor reviews generally. It appears to have been largely ignored since, which perhaps says something in itself.

          • They’ve abandoned all thoughts of yer lurking menace in favor of up-front, in-your-face special effects. In a sense the SFX are pretty good, but at the same time they’re sufficiently ill conceived that they had us occasionally giggling on the couch.

            I’d say it’s definitely not worth the use of your retinal cells unless as a curio.

            • I see, thanks for reporting back on that. As someone who tends to adhere to the philosophy of less is more, I think I’ll probably just give that a miss then, or I may give it a look should I happen to stumble across it on TV at some point. Maybe…

  2. Fantastic film, this. I remember first watching it ‘way back when’ expecting just an old b&w b-movie and being surprised by it being much more interesting than that. It really holds its own even today.

    I also like how both Things compliment each other across the decades, being very different but faithful to their shared central theme of alien threat. The prequel wasn’t a disaster either, although I know it gets plenty of flack, I quite enjoyed it.

    I think the Bodysnatchers films across the decades manage a similar trick of being different but valid to their inherent themes and each rewarding in their own way.

    • Yes, it does hold up very well. I think both films (haven’t seen the 2011 movie so I have no opinion on it) benefit from their different approaches and the different dynamic; it means they have a distinct and recognizable identity despite the shared source material.

      Regarding the Body Snatchers films, I like both the 1956 and the 1978 versions, although my personal preference is for the Siegel version, which I must get round to featuring here at some point. But I think you’re right about the analogy you’ve drawn here.

  3. Normally,RTHC covers overlooked,unheralded films, but it’s heartening to see a bona fide classic included in the mix,now and again.
    The Hawks/Nyby debate has raged for decades, although the general view is that Hawks gave his editor Nyby credit in order for him to obtain his director’s ticket. In all fairness though, Nyby does have his defenders from some esteemed circles, I might add.
    Nyby’s directing career was mainly extensive TV work although he did helm the A.C.Lyles Western YOUNG FURY – an odd choice as Lyles normally preferred veterans like Les Selander or R.G.Springsteen. I recall YOUNG FURY as being a pretty good example of the Western/JD mash-ups that were popular years back. (THE PLUNDERERS, THE YOUNG GUNS) Needless to say, I’d love to see YOUNG FURY on disc, in all it’s Techniscope glory.

    Colin-off topic; but as a dedicated Siodmak fan I think you might be interested to know that his masterly CRISS CROSS is due on Blu Ray soon from Australia.

    • Cheers, John. I like to vary things a little here when the opportunity arises, and a bit of classic Sci-Fi always presses the right buttons with me. Nyby did have a very extensive list of TV credits and he worked on lots of stuff I’ve seen and enjoyed. Hawks’ fingerprints are visible all over this movie, although that may well be just the mark of a strong, hands-on producer. Either way, the movie we got is a pleasure to watch from first to last.

  4. Great review. Love this movie. All the Hawks touches. Wish Kenneth Tobey had got more leading roles.
    And as you say, whatever happened to Margaret Sheridan.

    • Thanks, Tobey was a capable and personable lead, it’s a pity alright but that’s just how it goes sometimes.
      Again, Sheridan is someone you would imagine was destined for greater fame, but clearly that didn’t happen.

  5. Great review Colin and I agree that it is that sense of camaraderie which really defines its best qualities. It never really feels too much life SF to me, though much more so than the more overtly political BODY SNATCHERS. Mind you, it was only at a screening at the BFI that I realised that Hawks’ film is really a disguised vampire movie …

    • Yes, the politics never overwhelm the story, and the communal experience and everything that goes with it remains to the fore. As for the vampire movie stuff, I’m in a similar position in that it’s only relatively recently that I actually registered that aspect too, which just proves the old point about there always being something new to discover in the movies. 🙂

  6. Great work as always, Colin. I too like the focus on the characters working together; even when they’re divided in their approaches, there’s respect and a collective sense of getting the job done, and that’s rather a positive message contrasted neatly in the Carpenter version, where the little isolated society quickly descends into paranoia, distrust and opposition. I have to admire that sentiment about this film, though I confess I see the 1980s approach as being closer to what might realistically happen, certainly making it the more visceral experience. I’m also in favour of the systematic, problem solving attitude the team take to dealing with Arness’s ‘Thing’ here – no reliance on some Deus Ex Machina, just practicalities.

    • Cheers, Mike. That sense of cooperation and the focus on what it can achieve, even on a broader scale than the mere confines of the plot, is very attractive to me, it humanizes the film and it’s something I really appreciate about Hawks’ work.
      I do prefer that vibe to the divisiveness that comes off the Carpenter film, though I agree it’s probably a more likely scenario and is extremely well done, just because I tend to feel better about lots of things at the end of the Hawks film.

      • The novella, “Who Goes There” precedes Body Snatchers in its “The enemy is us” theme. The line between THEM and US completely erased. Can’t blame Carpenter’s crew for feeling a bit paranoid. The story’s author, John W. Campbell, based it on his own childhood nightmare. His mom had a twin, and his aunt would some time pretend to be his mother….

        • Didn’t know that. The fact is I haven’t read the original story, and haven’t read a lot of Sci-Fi in general, so this is very interesting to me. I must see if I can track down a copy of the story now.

          • Beyond a few if Asimov’s robot novels, I very much a newbie when it comes to Sci-Fi writing.
            Some literature in the genre – what seems to be referred to as “hard” science fiction – appears quite off-putting, for me anyway, and it can be difficult to know what is more accessible and what isn’t.

                • I find Van Vogt pretty unreadable in novel form, although he did some good short stories. I wouldn’t regard him as a pivotal Golden Age SF writer in the way that Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke were.

                  You’ve got to be careful with Bester. He wrote two brilliant novels and a bunch of brilliant short stories, but the rest of his stuff runs from mediocre to bad. (There’s a discussion of this going on at the moment here:

                  I wouldn’t say Sturgeon was the first to bring sex into SF. Just off the top of my head, Olaf Stapledon did so in Sirius (1944).

                  And Campbell would have had a fit over the usage “SciFi.” See

                  • I seem to be misquoted here. I didn’t say Van Vogt was pivotal, bit he was, as I said, tremendously popular and influential. His hunted mutants novel Slan spawned the phrase “Fans Are Slans”, the clubs called “Slanshacks”. So yes, he was pivotal in the formation of sf fandom. Some of his novels are “unreadable” in the sense that they are unrelated shorts stitched together. What he called “fix-ups”.

                    Nor did I sat Sturgeon introduced sex to sf, but rather he brought it forth into popular magazine sf short stories. The format under discussion.

                    The fact that Bester wrote two brilliant novels and some shorts doesn’t seem to necessitate a warning label.

                    • The fact that Bester wrote two brilliant novels and some shorts doesn’t seem to necessitate a warning label.

                      I was concerned that Colin might pick up, say, Tender Loving Rage. There’s a huge gap between Bester’s two brilliant novels and the others.

                      Actually, van Vogt’s fixups are the ones I find more readable. I was thinking more in terms of the Null-A ones, or The Mind Cage, or . . . *user’s mind moves swiftly to repress memories of others waded through in youth*

  7. This was a surprising choice for your first review of the year, and given that the film itself is always taken partly as a metaphor (like any great sci-fi), your opening remarks (“a plea for caution and vigilance…”) suggest the choice of movie and review itself are a metaphor for what is to come.

    Because in America at least, I’d rather be at the North Pole fighting off a Thing from Another World than facing the real-life monster that we are facing here in this new year.

    OK, that’s a political comment and you may delete it if you wish.

    Back to the movie, just want to point out for those that don’t know it that different as it is (it almost this film’s opposite) Carpenter’s version was made at least partly as an homage. Hawks is Carpenter’s favorite director and he has always adored The Thing from Another World and said so many times.

    I was quite taken with that Carpenter movie when it came out, and saw it three times in the course of several months. But I haven’t been drawn back to it–the same bleakness that entranced me is something that I still admire but don’t want to be with now. By contrast, I’m sure I’ll never tire of the 1951 movie (which I first saw as a kid as a 7 year old in 1951 and really scared me then). The Hawks warmth against the chill of the situation and the setting just make it a special, wonderful movie no matter what one’s genre preferences.

    Just to add re Christian Nyby, he had been an editor on a number of Hawks’ films and wanted to be a director so Hawks gave him this opportunity, and it’s my understanding that Nyby was always there and officially the director, but that he took a lot of input from Hawks, who was also there most of the time, and was glad to have it. I think of it as a Hawks movie–it’s hard not to–but Nyby shouldn’t be negated for the work he put into it, which was surely a lot. Moreover, though I don’t know his body of work well, I know he could do well on his own. His “Fugitive” episode “Nightmare at Northoak” is key to the series and very strongly done–and one of the best regarded of that show.

    I too would have liked to see more of sexy Margaret Sheridan than this, but at least if we only know her from this, it was a good role. As for Kenneth Tobey, he was rarely a lead but I think he had his share of good parts–one that comes to mind is Spig Wead/John Wayne’s friendly antagonist in the Army in Ford’s beautiful THE WINGS OF EAGLES; he’s truly delightful there.

    • Blake, it looks set to be a challenging and uncertain year on both sides of the pond so I guess material like this is apposite just now. Let’s just say that I hope things everywhere pan out in a more positive way than a lot of us worry they might.

      I like both the Hawks and Carpenter versions and wouldn’t want to get into trying to decide which is the better film – I prefer the 1951 for reasons similar to your own and also see that the 1982 version had the boldness to be a homage and also take it’s own direction and make its own statement.

      On Nyby, I hope I didn’t appear critical of his input. I have no reason to doubt his contribution and I have enjoyed his TV work. It’s just that there’s so much of Hawks in the finished piece that it’s hard to ignore.

  8. A nice choice for your first review of 2017, Colin!

    I enjoyed your emphasis on the Hawks/Nyby relationship and Hawks’ strong influence all over the film. It would be hard to argue that it is not one of the great movies of its genre, from the 50s principally but really from any era.

    I have always liked Ken Tobey’s appearances. Good to see him in the lead here. I was very familiar with him growing up in the 50s as the star of the Desilu TV series ‘WHIRLYBIRDS’ which played on UK TV screens for years.

    • Hello, Jerry. I’ve been trying to add some more classic Sci-Fi to the site where possible and this seemed like a good fit for the season in lots of ways.
      I’m not sure if I ever caught any reruns or repeats of Whirlybirds on TV – something about it seems familiar but I can’t put my finger on it or say for sure.

  9. Late in life Hawks took full credit. Scifi then was the bottom of the cinematic ladder. The situation may have been parallel to the later Spielberg/Hooper one ala Poltergeist.

    Carpenter’s film is not a remake. It’s a faithful adaptation of the source novella. Hawks considered a truly alien-like alien, before making it look “like Frankenstein”.

    • Hi, Bill. I guess “remake” properly refers to another version of an original script as opposed to a different interpretation of a literary source. However, so many people use the term, and I’ve certainly seen it used with regard to Carpenter’s movie on lots of occasions, that I just tend to follow suit and there’s no implication intended on my part that the 1982 film is any less for its use.

      A more alien appearance for Arness would have been at least interesting, and the ordinariness of the Thing, when we get to see it, is the only weakness. Having said that, it’s a minor issue for me and I think it says a lot for the quality of the film overall that the rather mundane look of the creature is generally seen as a bit of a footnote as criticisms go.

      • I share your and Bill’s irritation with the usage “remake,” but unfortunately it’s the term used in the industry. To take a different example, all three of the remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are really reinterpretations rather than straightforward remakes, yet “remakes” is the term universally used to describe them. Perhaps a more accurate term might be something like “revisits”? But, you know, tell that to the Academy.

        • John, it’s not something I honestly give a lot of thought to and I use “remake” myself all the time. OK, it’s not going to be strictly accurate all the time but since it’s in common usage, I feel there’s no point losing sleep over it. In the case of the Thing, and the Body Snatchers, I use remake as it’s convenient, even if it may not be 100% correct.

  10. Really a fun flick in the end and isn’t that the general idea. Of course this one has plenty of back scene things going on with a name like Hawks involved in a genre not usually associated with a “name” director.
    I remember my Mom trying to convince me that was Matt Dillon under the monster make up when I was a kid watching this on TV.
    As for the remake? I love it.

    • Yes indeed! It’s primarily a piece of entertainment, and it does that beautifully. The fact there’s added depth to it all is a bonus and adds another layer of interest and enjoyment, I think. That’s surely the way art as expressed through any entertainment medium ought to work, if it’s to be successful. Ad it’s refreshing to hear so many mention their appreciation of both versions of the story – so often we end up digging ourselves into entrenched positions defending version X over version Y, so it’s nice to see a different kind of consensus emerging.

      Love the idea of your mother pulling your leg on that one. 🙂

  11. I initially wrote off the popularity of this one as director worship, which is an anathema to me; that idea was quickly washed away upon my last viewing. Incredible writing, and what could have been a terrible monster turned out to be quite frightening by the end.

    I’m a HUGE fan of the remake, and I feel blessed with the opportunity to enjoy two masterworks…ig very different, indeed.

    • Some filmmakers do perhaps receive more acclaim than they deserve but I think Hawks earned his plaudits, which doesn’t mean there are no weakness in his work or anything but that his involvement usually signals the fact that there will be something of interest on view at the very least. And this movie is one of his strongest pieces overall.
      I agree too on the strength of the remake, which does the worthwhile (and correct as far as remakes are concerned) thing, in my opinion, of adopting a different approach and tone.

  12. My post on this film from a couple of years ago garnered more comments than usual and most of them of the “love this movie” variety. A couple were the “haven’t seen this” sort. The fan fondness for The Thing from Another World stretches far and wide. We all seem to be drawn to the execution of the story even more than the story itself.

    If time and interest permit:

  13. I loved this film when I was a boy. Nothing wrong with the John Carpenter version either—love Kurt Russell in it—as its special effects are very good. But something about the first works a little better for me. And god I loved Kenneth Toby, particularly so in “It Came from Beneath the Sea” which was the first film I had ever saw him in. A very underrated actor in my opinion.

    • I’ve been trying to watch more classic Sci-Fi as it’s just so enjoyable for the most part, and I might well give my DVD of It Came from Beneath the Sea as spin soon.

        • One of the best, or most pleasurable, things about movies is how aspects of one )maybe an actor, a director, an effects man, and so on) leads you on to another title. Then, if you’re lucky, that will point you towards something else, maybe even a different medium, like a book or a piece of music. In the end, of course, it all weaves together into a whole, an ever fascinating cultural and artistic experience.

          • Yes, that’s so true. All those creative departments are vital for the world of entertainment to gel the way it does. So many creative people with such skill and talent unleashing their imaginations together. It is amazing to see it unfold, it truly is.

            • You know, I think the “mystery tour” aspect of it all is among the most satisfying – wherever you jump i, you never can tell where you’ll end up, or even where you’re going to stop off along the way.

              • It is a gypsies life but one that can be filled with satisfaction and gratification because it has the potential to move people on a grand scale and leave a lasting legacy. The arts are important whether it be in writing, acting, or music and any of the many other artistic endeavors. It also teaches the importance of collaboration, and sadly it lacks funding in our schools.

                • I can’t argue with any of that. I suppose the fact the rewards are not immediately tangible, or need too be calculated using different formulae, is partly responsible for much of this.

                  • As good an explanation as any. Artistic endeavors are usually fueled with passion and the anticipation of the hopeful acceptance of appreciation. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that kind of outcome can also serve in feeding that fire to create something worthy of recognition. A nice by-product of all that hard work is the accumulated skill and experience one gains, and the understanding of what the public likes. I think it’s safe to say that lot of growth comes from that kind of experience.

          • Wonderfully put Colin. I’ve had some strange ‘journeys’ over the years, but always enriched by them. Film is really a wonderful artform, just a shame the business side of it interferes so much nowadays.

            Coincidentally, how wonderful that this old b-movie has struck up such an interesting and passionate series of comments. Bravo.

            • I guess this is what attracts so many to this medium, the diversity at its heart. And, for me, it’s always a blast to see the comments section take on something of a life of its own, spinning off on tangents here and there, maybe introducing new perspectives or recommending further watching/reading/listening. Any way you cut it, you come away with more than you had originally and if that’s not a good enough reason for participating in the whole blogging game, then I don’t know what is.

  14. I came here from Laura’s blog – your article is about one of my favorite science-fiction films.

    The late Roger Ebert wrote a book, “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie”. Had I written this book, I would most certainly have included John Carpenter’s version of it.

    • Hi, Mel, glad you stopped in and took the time to read and comment.
      While I’m fine with both films (although I do prefer the Hawks version for reasons I’ve already spoken about) it’s always interesting to hear from those whose like or dislike is more emphatic and pronounced. I understand that and, in fact, feel that way about one or too other remake situations – maybe that depends on the how well we feel the filmmakers grasped the ideas behind the original? I’m not sure really, but I do think it’s down to a range of reactions.

  15. Pingback: Spring Thaw: Year of Bests – 2017 | It Rains... You Get Wet

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