Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ed Wood's BLOOD SPLATTERS QUICKLY: 'Missionary (Position) Impossible' (1971)

Ed Wood ventures into the jungle for "Missionary (Position) Impossible."

NOTE: This article is part of my ongoing coverage of Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

The cast of Mission: Impossible.
(Note Martin Landau on the right.)
The story: "Missionary (Position) Impossible," originally published in Gold Diggers magazine, September/October 1971, Pendulum.

Synopsis: A pair of English-speaking missionaries, Martin and Fartheringay, venture into the darkest, densest jungle in Africa in search of the legendary "white queen," a fair-skinned, blonde-haired woman who supposedly rules over a native tribe. Besides being terrifically expensive, the expedition is difficult and perilous, beset by snakes and quicksand. 

The missionaries also experience communication problems with their African guides, who speak not a word of English. Eventually, though, Martin and Fartheringay come across a village whose inhabitants move gracefully and speak perfect English. At last, they have discovered the realm of the white queen! It's the find of the year! Not quite. The "queen" turns out to be a flamboyantly homosexual man, and the missionaries depart in disgust. The young man, however, is nonplussed: "I've always found the missionary position impossible."

Wood trademarks: A "swishy" gay stereotype; the phrase "the understatement of the year" (cf. Glen or Glenda?); snakes (in this case, adders); many morbid references to death, rotting, and the grim reaper (the jungle is described as "a monument to death," just like Lake Marsh in Bride of the Monster); non-white tribe ruled by blonde-haired, light-skinned queen (cf. "Yellow Gold" in Revenge of the Virgins).

Excerpt: "Martin and Fartheringay nearly fell through the bottom of their shoes as the blonde haired, youthful white man, covered in jewelry, earrings, arm and leg bracelets minced out through the door and greeted them with a wide, white-toothed grin. 'Darlings,' he crooned."

Reflections: Traditionally, a "shaggy dog story" is an anecdote or joke characterized by irrelevant details and ending in a deliberately silly or anticlimactic punchline. The point of such an endeavor is to play upon the audience's expectations. Readers or listeners will pay attention to the twists and turns of a story, thinking these will eventually be important, only to have their expectations playfully thwarted by the narrator. 

"Missionary (Position) Impossible" is Ed Wood's typically loony attempt at the form. The payoff here is a simple, schoolboy joke based on the double meaning of the word "queen." That's really all there is to this. But before we get there, Eddie takes us on a ridiculously meandering safari, filled with incidents which ultimately have nothing to do with the "true" purpose of the story. We are treated, for instance, to an inordinate amount of background information about the expedition, including how it was mocked by the media and how a group of "beautiful young ladies" raised money for the trip by going door to door, asking for donations. 

Then there are the cliffhanger-type mini-adventures, as when Fartheringay sinks into a pool of quicksand or when the missionaries are almost bitten by adders when they stop to rest. Ed even tries to find biblical significance in the latter incident: "The serpent in their religion was always a representative of evil, and by no means were they going into the other world through the sting of evil."

A "native" scene from Glen or Glenda?

Were it not for the story's lewd, punning title, a reader might be forgiven for thinking at first that this was a sincere "jungle adventure" yarn. In some ways, perhaps, it was. Despite being an elongated dirty joke, "Missionary (Position) Impossible" gives Ed Wood a chance to write an African adventure in his own signature style. He'd been to the Dark Continent before with his script for The Bride and the Beast (1958), plus a brief cutaway to dancing "natives" in Glen or Glenda? and even an early Wesson Oil commercial in which cannibals use the product to help cook a couple of white explorers in a big black kettle. 

There is no record of Ed Wood actually traveling to Africa, and it seems likely that he drew from movies and pulp novels while writing this story. In fact, "jungle movies" are twice referenced in the text. The missionaries talk the way Stanley and Livingstone would in a Bullwinkle cartoon and pepper their conversation with quaint expressions like "old bean," "old fellow," and "I dare say." 

The depiction of the natives is, as you might guess, unenlightened. Their language is described as "monkey-like jabbering" and "monkey chatter," and the missionaries complain that their dark-skinned guides, once dubbed "raving maniacs," take too many breaks. It is perhaps some consolation that one of the missionary's lives is saved by the Africans. It is less comforting to read a sentence like: "Anyone who would want to remain in this stink hole would have to be mad."

And then, there is the nearly ever-present theme of homosexuality, which is treated with the queasy combination of fear, fascination, and disgust one might expect from an uptight straight man. Before we ever get to the "white queen," the text is littered with double entendres. Wood goes out of his way to use words like "erected," "crotch," "groaned," "open legs," and "penetrated." Even the name "Fartheringay" (Ed's alternate spelling of the more-common Fotheringay) coquettishly suggests homosexual penetration. Wood makes sure to present the story's one (openly) gay character as a laughable, sissy-boy stereotype, one who "minced" and "swished." He even has a stunned Fartheringay exclaim: "A faggot, a queer, a lavender lad, a pinky boy..." Even here, though, there may be some subversion. After all, the "white queen" does get the last word in the story, while the missionaries literally run away like cowards.

By the way, despite its title, there is no connection between "Missionary (Position) Impossible" and the television spy series Mission: Impossible (1966-1973), which would have been in the middle of its run when Wood's story was published. It is amusing, however, to note that one of the show's stars, Martin Landau, would win an Academy Award for appearing in Ed Wood two decades later.

Next: "Dracula Revisited" (1971)