In Iowa, United States
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New Mexico State Police troopers Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) discover a little girl in shock, wandering the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. She soon falls asleep in the police car. They retrace her steps to a mobile home owned by an FBI agent named Ellinson, who was on vacation in the area with his wife and two children. The side of the trailer was ripped open from the outside, the rest of the family is missing and no money was taken. A single unknown animal track seem to be the only clue. Then a strange, pulsating high pitched noise echos out of the desert on the wind. The little girl briefly awakens in fear when she hears the sound, however this is not noticed by those around her.
More mysterious deaths and disappearances occur. A general store owner named "Gramps" Johnson is found dead; his store is also torn apart from the outside. No cash was taken from the register, but a barrel of sugar was smashed open. Gramps' Winchester rifle was fired and is now twisted out of shape. Peterson leaves by car to check on the little girl and make a report, leaving Blackburn to guard the store alone. Blackburn hears the strange, pulsating sound outside and leaves to investigate; off-camera gunshots are fired, the strange sound grows faster and louder, and Blackburn's scream is heard.
A plaster cast of the oddly shaped footprint found near the trailer is made and sent to Washington, D.C. Peterson's boss later points out that Gramps, a crack shot, had time to fire all his ammunition at his attacker. Even more puzzling is the coroner's determination of Johnson's cause of death: a broken neck and back, skull fracture, crushed abdomen, and "enough formic acid in his body to kill 20 men."
The FBI sends agent Robert Graham (James Arness) to investigate after the bureau is unable to identify the footprint. With him he brings Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon), a father/daughter team of myrmecologists from the Department of Agriculture. At the footprint's site, the senior Dr. Harold Medford examines the footprint. He later tries an experiment on the Ellinson girl by exposing her to formic acid fumes, reviving her from a catatonic state; she screams and yells out "Them! Them!"
Even with his suspicions validated by the girl's reaction, Dr. Harold Medford will not reveal his theory quite yet; doing so prematurely might lead "to a nationwide panic". While investigating the Ellinson campsite later on, the junior Dr. Pat Medford encounters a giant, eight-foot long foraging ant and screams. The lawmen run to her and empty their .38 revolvers into the insect with little effect. On directions from Dr. Harold Medford, Peterson and Graham shoot off the ant's antennae, blinding it; they then empty their Thompson submachine gun's magazines, finally killing it. Dr. Harold Medford finally reveals his theory: the giant ant was likely mutated by irradiation from the first atomic bomb test near Alamogordo.
After the Medfords, Graham and Peterson have secured Air Force General O'Brien's (Onslow Stevens) aid, the giant ants' nest is located by helicopter. Poison gas bombs are then tossed into the nest. General Graham, Peterson and Dr. Pat Medford descend into the nest to kill any survivors. Deep inside the nest, Dr. Pat Medford finds evidence that two other queen ants have hatched and have left to establish new colonies. Trying to avoid a general panic, the government covertly investigates any reports of unusual activity, even sightings of "flying saucers." The Coast Guard receives a Morse Code message saying a giant queen has hatched her brood in the hold of a freighter heading to South America; giant ants attack the ship's crew and only a few survivors escape to be rescued. The freighter is later sunk by heavy U. S. Navy gunfire. Another report leads them to a rail yard with a smashed boxcar missing its 40 ton cargo of sugar. Another report takes them to a state psychiatric hospital in Brownsville, Texas and to a pilot (Fess Parker) who insists that his small plane was forced down after nearly colliding with three UFOs shaped like giant ants; agent Graham believes his story, then quietly but firmly requests the pilot remain hospitalized until further notice.
An alcoholic in a Los Angeles hospital "drunk tank" reveals to agent Graham that he has been seeing giant ants outside his window. The body of a mutilated man is recovered, and Graham and the Medfords connect the body to a report of a missing man and his two young sons; it's quickly discovered the man was flying a model airplane with his sons near the hospital and very close to the Los Angeles River. Given this significant threat, the U. S. Army declares martial law and a curfew for Los Angeles; more troops are assigned to find and then assault the new nest in the storms drains under the city.
State policeman Peterson finds the two missing boys alive deep inside the drain system, but they are now trapped near the ants' nest. He calls for reinforcements and goes in alone to rescue the boys, finally getting them to safety just before he is attacked by a giant ant. FBI Agent Graham arrives with the reinforcements and kills the ant attacking Peterson as other ants swarm to protect the nest. Peterson soon dies from his injuries with Graham at his side. Graham and the other soldiers fight off the giant ants just before a cave-in temporarily cuts off Graham. Several ants charge him, but he is able to hold them off long enough with machine gun fire for the other troops to tunnel through and finally rescue him. The queen and her young "princess" hatch-lings are quickly discovered and then destroyed using flamethrowers.
The film ends with Dr. Harold Medford issuing a cautionary warning: "When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, no one can predict."
(No hints available.)
Last Updated: on 7/21/2014 7:28:25 PM Pacific Daylight Time (2:28 AM GMT)
Coordinates are in the WGS84 datum