Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 88: "Set To Go Off" (1970)

This week, Ed Wood gives us his subtle, nuanced take on the Vietnam War.

Bob Hope and Raquel Welch in Vietnam, 1967.
More than any other issue, the Vietnam War is responsible for the social divide known as the generation gap in the 1960s and '70s. Sure, young people had differences with their parents over lots of things—sex, drugs, music, art, fashion, hairstyles, race relations, etc. But none of those had the sheer, visceral impact of the war.

Young male baby boomers were being drafted into the military to fight and die in Southeast Asia, and they naturally began to rebel against a war they neither condoned nor even understood. The politicians sending them to Vietnam belonged to the older generation, the one that had survived the Great Depression in the 1930s and fought World War II in the 1940s. America's parents tended to side with the politicians. They'd gone to war, so why shouldn't their sons do the same? How was this new war different? No protest, no matter how vehement, could make them understand.

When I think of Vietnam and the generation gap, I can't help remembering an interview that author Richard Zoglin did with NPR's Terry Gross in 2014. Zoglin appeared on Fresh Air to discuss his biography of comedian Bob Hope, and the conversation turned to Hope's stalwart support of the Vietnam War. The author explained:
Bob had done his work [entertaining the troops] in World War II and then started up again in 1948, doing some Christmas shows for the troops. He did that through the '50s. When Vietnam came along, it was a routine. It was a yearly thing. At Christmas, he would go overseas, and his specials would be televised. Again, he was like maybe a lot of people from that generation. He was from the World War II generation. He could not conceive of a war that the United States wouldn't pursue to victory, that wouldn't be backed by everyone, the way it was in World War II.
Compare that to the sardonic lyrics of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," a 1965 protest song by Country Joe and the Fish, a psychedelic rock group popular among the youth of the era. This tune, a mock recruitment anthem, became especially legendary after the band performed it at Woodstock in 1969. Sentiments like these assuredly kept Country Joe and the Fish from ever being booked on a Bob Hope Christmas special.

Well, come on all of you, big strong men 
Uncle Sam needs your help again
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun
We're gonna have a whole lotta fun

And it's one, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam
And it's five, six, seven
Open up the pearly gates
Well, there ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee! We're all gonna die!

Edward Davis Wood, Jr. was decidedly of the older generation. He was born in 1924, lived through the Depression, joined the Marines at the age of 17, and served his country during World War II. Though he greatly exaggerated his heroism, he was extremely proud of his military service and would speak of it often for the rest of his life. It's very doubtful that he would have had any sympathy for protesters or draft dodgers. Note that some of the characters in The Class Reunion (1972) speak with disdain about antiwar demonstrators. ("Nothing like those street apes ever happened when we were their age!")

War and the military are semi-common themes in Ed Wood's creative work, going back at least as far as his late '40s play The Casual Company. Among his short stories, we find "No Atheists in the Grave" (1971) and "The Wave Off" (1971), which both include mentions of combat but avoid naming Vietnam specifically. Jeff Trent, the square-jawed pilot of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), is another proud ex-Marine. And then there is Alan from Glen or Glenda (1953), who is drafted into the Army during World War II and serves successfully but whose penchant for cross-dressing makes him feel alienated from his fellow soldiers.

It's sometimes difficult to discern Ed Wood's true feelings about warfare. His magnum opus, Plan 9, is essentially a parable about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Eros the alien warns us that the human race will eventually build a bomb powerful enough to destroy the entire universe. (Jeff Trent responds, in typical caveman style, by punching Eros square in the jaw.) On the other hand, in Hollywood Rat Race, Ed refers to the atomic bomb as a "magnificent undertaking" and applauds the "many people of many trades" who helped build it.

Until Operation Redlight (1969) resurfaces, we may never get the definitive Ed Wood statement on the Vietnam War. Perhaps until then, we can draw some conclusions from a truly bizarre and outrageous short story published in 1970 and set explicitly during the Vietnam conflict. I'll warn you now that this is an ugly story with some very unpleasant racial and sexual themes. Only its cartoonish absurdity keeps it from being truly offensive.

The story: "Set To Go Off," originally published in Illustrated Case Histories, vol. 1, no. 3, November/December 1970. Credited to "Jacques Rippee." Anthologized in Short Wood: Short Fiction by Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Ramble House, 2009).

De Palma's Casualties of War .
Synopsis: Wally Armbruster is an excellent soldier, even though he does things his own way and doesn't really feel like he belongs in the Army. One day, in Cambodia, Wally and his buddy Thomson are surveying a small village that consists of only a few huts. There, they find a pretty Vietnamese girl of about 16, whom Wally immediately identifies as a member of the Viet Cong. Thomson suggests taking her prisoner, but Wally wants to have sex with her first. While Thomson notes that the girl seems terrified, Wally insists the young woman is "set to go off."

Wally undresses, and the Vietnamese girl initially tries to fight him off before resigning herself to her fate of being raped by the American soldier. She says she is the last living member of her family; all the others were killed by the Americans. Wally asks her why she didn't clear out of the village when she had the chance. "Stayed for you," she answers. When Wally finally penetrates her, he realizes too late that the girl has turned herself into a human landmine.

Wood trademarks: Warfare (cf. "The Wave Off," "No Atheists in the Grave"); war brides (cf. "Tank Town Chippie"); basic training (cf. Glen or Glenda); ridiculous sexual slang (in this case, calling a woman's vagina a "wazoo"); euphemism for penis (in this case, "his staff"); mention of bobcat (cf. Plan 9); ludicrous twist ending (cf. many stories in Angora Fever and Blood Splatters Quickly); feeling a sudden cold sensation throughout one's body (cf. Orgy of the Dead); wordplay (numerous puns on "peace" and "piece").

Excerpt: "He looked down. There was a ragged pile of shredded flesh and splintered bones where the lower half of his body had been. His blood mingled with the blood of the girl. He turned and saw her. The look of horror was frozen on her dead face."

Reflections: I cannot claim to understand what was going on in Ed Wood's mind when he was writing these short stories half a century ago. All I really know about Eddie's creative process is that he wrote extremely quickly, often while eating, drinking, watching TV, and carrying on various conversations with friends. My guess is that he came up with the ending of "Set To Go Off" first and worked backwards from there. The entire reason this story exists is to unleash that ghoulish and improbable final twist.

But how do you get to an ending like that? One interpretation of "Set To Go Off"—and the one that bodes best for Ed Wood—is that this is simply a story about sin and punishment. Eddie is playing God and doling out some cosmic justice to arrogant rapist Wally Armbruster, who ignores the warnings of his buddy Thomson. Wally gets what he has coming to him, while Thomson (a possible nod to William C. Thompson?) survives unscathed. The end. Nothing more to it.

If that were the case, however, why would Eddie go out of his way to set up Wally Armbruster as "one hell of a good man in a fight" and "a true innocent"? The soldier's combat-readiness has nothing to do with the story, and Wally is anything but innocent by the end of it. Ed even includes an itemized description of Wally's clothes and tells us that this man "never felt like a soldier." These details help to humanize the character and make him seem more three-dimensional. The story is told in the third person, but Wally is definitely our viewpoint character until the very end, when he literally gets the last laugh. Does Eddie want us to sympathize with this guy?

Is it possible that "Set To Go Off" is actually an antiwar story, showing us that the conflict has brought out the absolute worst in these soldiers? It's not difficult, after all, to see parallels between Eddie's short story and Brian De Palma's controversial 1989 film Casualties of War, in which some American soldiers kidnap and rape a Vietnamese girl. Eddie is not coy about calling this a rape story. He even has Wally say to his victim, "Never saw a girl this scared to get raped." But Wally also insists that the girl "wanted" this to happen. Does Eddie agree with him or not?

In the end, "Set To Go Off" is one of the more upsetting and disturbing stories in the Wood canon, and it showcases the darkest corners of Ed's imagination. We're a long way from Glenda or Plan 9 here, even if the story does share themes with those movies. If we are to understand this man fully, we cannot ignore stories like this one, as much as we might want to.