In Anchorage, Alaska, journalist Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer) is at the Alaskan Air Command Officer’s Club, looking for a story. He meets Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), his co-pilot Lieutenant Eddie Dykes (James Young), and navigator Ken MacPherson (Robert Nichols). General Fogarty (David McMahon) sends Hendry out to the north pole because lead scientist Doctor Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) wants to investigate a strange aircraft that has crashed nearby.
At the remote outpost, the team meet the radio operator Tex (Nicholas Bryan), a woman named Mrs. Chapman (Sally Creighton), a cook and Inuit dog-handlers. There are also a bunch of scientists and Mikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), Hendry’s old flame. At the crash site, they find a large object buried under the ice which turns out to be a flying saucer. Trying to thaw it out quickly, they destroy it. But there is a body frozen in the ice and they fly it out in a block of ice just before a storm closes in.
Hendry assumes command and denies Scott permission to send out the story as they wait for the storm to clear. Corporal Barnes (William Self) covers the ice with a blanket which he does not realize is an electric blanket. The ice melts, the creature is freed and escapes into the storm, where it is attacked by the sled dogs. Afterward, they find its severed arm. Examining it, they decide the creature is an advanced form of plant life. The scientist Carrington believes it is superior to humans and wants to communicate with it.
They discover a dog drained of its blood and realize the plant is carnivorous. They begin a frightened watch. Stern (Eduard Franz) appears, badly injured, and reports that Auerbach and Olsen are dead. The creature attacks the airmen, and they barricade it in the greenhouse. Captain Hendry orders Carrington to remain in his lab and quarters and keep away from the creature. They find seeds that Carrington took from the severed arm and fed on blood plasma. The creature escapes from the greenhouse and attacks the airmen in their quarters.
They set it on fire with kerosene, force it to retreat into the storm. They find the temperature dropping and learn that the alien sabotaged the heating system. They retreat to the generator room for warmth and rig a trap with live wires. Though Carrington tries to communicate with it, the alien knocks him aside and walks into the trap. It is reduced to ash. When the weather clears, Scott is allowed to file his story. It ends with the ominous warning: “Tell the World. Tell everybody. Watch the skies.”
The cast’s names appear only at the end, unusual for the time. It was directed by Christian Nyby, produced by Edward Lasker for Howard Hawks. James Arness plays the Thing, though he is disguised by makeup and spooky lighting. The story came from a 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” by John Campbell, published in his Astounding Science Fiction magazine. The characters talk in overlapping dialogue as in many newsman-based movies of the day. It was filmed in Glacier National Park and a Los Angeles icehouse. The creepy music was by Dimitri Tiomkin.
Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht rewrote the script. In the original story, the creature was capable of assuming the shape and intelligence of other living things. This was used to terrifying effect in John Carpenter’s 1982 remake The Thing. The cast have disagreed on how much directing was done by Howard Hawks. William Self, who played the airman who thawed out the creature, later became President of 20th Century Fox TV. He produced Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, the Time-Tunnel, Batman, and Green Hornet, to mention a few. At first, the film was dismissed by reviewers, but now it is considered one of the great science fiction movies.
James Arness was ashamed of playing the alien and did not attend the premiere. There were no closeups of the Thing to hide the less than perfect makeup, and it was filmed in low light, but that made it all the creepier. It took five months and 15 tries before Howard Hawks was happy with the makeup. The US Air Force refused to help because their official policy was that UFOs do not exist. Roger Ebert admitted being scared to death by the film. The movie appears on TV screens in the background several times during John Carpenter’s Halloween. When the research station at the South Pole shuts down for the winter and the last plane leaves, a skeleton crew is left alone at the end of the world to keep the place from freezing. They celebrate with Movie Night, in which they play both versions of The Thing.