October 22, 2013

Hollywood Invades the Prairie

by Kate Hampton, State Historic Preservation Office

“It creeps….It crawls…It strikes without warning!” It is…The Thing from Another World!
Montana has had its fair share of UFO sightings and cryptid tales, some told around a campfire and others played out on film.  Who could forget James Arness’ first feature filmthe science fiction classic, The Thing from Another World?  Arness is barely recognizable as “the Thing” itself, and Montana’s wintry landscape around the Cut Bank and Lewistown airports double for the North Pole.
Released in 1951 and based on John Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?” the movie chronicles the experiences of a scientific team that unwittingly releases an alien being from deep layers of Arctic ice. 
The Great Falls Tribune, Cut Bank Pioneer Press, and Lewistown Argus-Farmer covered the filming in December 1950 and January 1951.  Kenneth Tobey, pictured below in the dark topcoat at center, played Captain Patrick Henry.  Dewey Martin played Crew Chief Bob – and appears in the photo just left of Tobey, in the tweed overcoat. 

Clipping courtesy of the Glacier County Historical Museum
Location scouts chose Cut Bank’s World War IIera Army Air Force training facility and airport to substitute for the windswept, icy polar research station, and nearby Mission Lake served as the alien spaceship crash site.  Many locals recall the filming, and consistently tell the story of how frustrated the filmmakers became after they arrived. 
They picked Cut Bank for its wintry locale and landscape, but the team had to be creative when chinooks blew snow from the runways and prairie.  To create a blizzard and film the exterior of the “research station,” the crew trucked in snow from Many Glacier, mimicking a storm by blowing the snow with airplane propellers.  The crew also hired local crop dusters to whitewash the runways and surrounding land.  Severson Air provided several planes some used for aerial shots.  
 Clipping courtesy of the Glacier County Historical Museum

When the crew travelled to snowier Lewistown in January 1951, they employed local “actors” to use a sled dog team to search for “The Thing” across the hills east of town.  Missoula's Johnson Flying Service provided DC-3 planes used in the movie, and the crew modified them to look like military C-47's. 

Great Falls Tribune, Parade
section, January 15, 1951.
One Lewistown poet relayed the events in verse: 
…The kingpins flew ‘til their faces were blue, in search for an ideal place,
And the hit a “bonanza’ in Cut Bank Montana, My! The world seemed dressed in lace.
There was snow galore, and of cold - - much more; it was a “garden spot” for “The Thing,”
Even mittened shmoos and frosty igloos would look at home in that ring.
But the warm chinooks fooled the movie “cooks” and melted away the snow;
The directors moaned and the actors groaned. (Gad! That was a low blow.)
Though their loud cry, they wouldn’t say die and their tone bore a resolute ring;
So the men came down to Lewistown to film the gol ‘durned “Thing.”
They wore grins ‘cuz the airport’s rims were blanketed in virgin snow:
The weather was mild and the big boss smiled, and he ordered “On with the show!”…
 - “The Thing,” by Tom Kelley, printed in the Lewistown Argus-Farmer, January 14, 1951
Despite their trouble filming in Montana, the actors and crew enjoyed the beauty, people, and Montana cuisine – especially the steaks.  In the end, the film received mixed reviews when it was released in April 1951.  Over the past decade, however, critics have recognized it as one of the best science fiction movies ever.  The film and the original short story inspired John Carpenter’s remake, The Thing, in 1982, and a prequel to the story appeared in theaters in 2011.  Still, the original is dark and delightful – especially when you know the backstory.  Remember the movie’s ominous warning: 
Tell the world. Tell this to everyone, wherever they are.
Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”