Jamie Bircoll: A mustache to make Wyatt Earp proud

Tuesday, February 9, 2016 - 6:04pm

About four weeks ago, I decided to grow a beard. I made my decision out of necessity: I was skiing out West where, on the first day of a six day excursion, the wind and cold ripped apart the skin on my face into peeling, inflamed flakes of shedding epidermis. With my face burning red, tender to the touch, I needed some extra protection if I was to return to Ann Arbor without looking like Captain America’s nemesis, the Red Skull. After those six days, I decided to challenge myself and see how well (or poorly) I could get my barely visible bleach blonde scruff to grow. After a month, the results are satisfactory, better than I had predicted.

During that month, I also watched 10 Western films, old and new. Almost every single male character in these films, with the exception of Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” sports some mighty form of bristly, manly facial hair. Kurt Russell’s potent mustache in “Tombstone,” which grew even more formidable in “The Hateful Eight,” the rugged stubble of Clint Eastwood and Franco Nero in the “Dollars” trilogy and “Django,” respectively, Jeff Bridges’s scruffy, one-eyed sheriff in “True Grit” and even Leo’s dirty, disheveled, somewhat patchy mountain man look in “The Revenant” (which, I would argue, is most certainly a Western), all of these protagonists don better facial hair than I ever could. I find my own mildly bristled visage inadequate by comparison.

But of course, they’re actors; they have makeup departments to fix what they can’t grow, to make their beards and mustaches perfect. They are, in fact, perfect specimens of facial hair. And given their perfection and their pervasiveness and visibility, one realizes that facial hair has become integral to the Western hero. Because when I think about Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp without a mustache, he looks less grizzled, less haunted by his past as a soldiering peacekeeper (and it wouldn’t be historically accurate, but that’s beside the point). A clean-shaven John Wayne in “The Searchers” seems less desperate, less martial. And I have a hard enough time believing Leo could ever survive in the wilderness like Hugh Glass — the absence of his beard would make “The Revenant” beyond incredulous. I ask myself why this is.

Naturally, we can reason a couple explanations as to the characters’ beards: It’s the Wild West, so of course many men will be unkempt, since they have larger concerns at hand. And the costume and makeup departments likely want to remain historically accurate in the case of biopics, and many classic lawmen and outlaws grew some sort of facial hair.

But it’s very easy to write off these decisions to historical accuracy. I imagine most people don’t know what Hugh Glass and Wyatt Earp actually looked like, and no one would complain if they lacked facial hair. After all, film has influenced much of how we think about and perceive the West, for better or worse, as much as if not more than history itself. We have mythologized the West into, well, a Hollywood version of itself through years of mythic constructions in the 1930s and ’40s, some deconstructions in the ’50s and some hyperviolent hyperboles in the ’60s and ’70s (and most recently with “Django Unchained”). All of these films attack or build or borrow from the myth of the American West in a myriad of ways, but they are all tied to their bearded heroes and villains.

Most recently, I watched the 2007 remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” and the situation is no different. Christian Bale’s Dan Evans is an ex-Union soldier, who lost his leg during the war and a struggling farmer. He is tasked with escorting renowned outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the town of Contention to catch the train to Yuma prison. Both Bale and Crowe don the same short-boxed, low-trimmed beard — these men are two sides of the same coin, a complicated mix of good and evil, success and failure, muddied by differing perceptions of justice. For Wade, justice is monetary, a give and take depending on actions dealt and received. Evans is more concrete: justice is honor and code, a duty to uphold “though the heavens fall,” as the saying goes. Over the course of the film, the two ideologies mesh and mingle, and morality and justice shift depending on the perspective.

That’s not to say that the facial hair itself dictates this idea, but that it links these two forceful characters and contrasts them with the others: the snooty, rich railroad man’s slicked moustache, the seasoned officer’s thicker mane, the out-of-his-element doctor’s modest moustache and the beardless, angry stowaway son of Evans. All of these other characters are wildly different from each other and serve mainly to highlight this central conflict between Evans and Wade, two titans of morality. It is here we find the heart of the Western.

Every tale set in the American West is tragic, because, in every case, no matter what happens, the story, the characters, the laws and the values will inevitably be left behind. But even in the nameless, endless stretches of sand and mountain ranges that time and progress will soon forget, the stakes are never higher.  In the myth of the American West, a fight in the small town of Contention between two men with nothing in common but their beards can create an atmosphere rich with tension, so dangerous and fateful it might as well be a fight between God and the Devil. It’s an atmosphere that only the Western has been able to achieve so perfectly and consistently.

That’s why the Western will never disappear; our perceptions, historical and current, of good, evil, morality and justice, though they change and though we revise them through the years, are engrained in our consciousness, and engrained in the American Western. Even in films like “Unforgiven” (where the heroes are bearded and the villain is clean shaven) that completely reject and deconstruct the West for all of its ugliness. Though it’s a genre fixed in time, it is, in the end, timeless.

And if the Western is timeless, then so too are the beards that contribute to its ethos. I like to believe that the emphasis placed on a strong beard in these films is not due to the lack of cheap Gillette razors but to the evocation of the battle for justice and a bygone way of life that the beard symbolizes. I can only hope to one day honor that ethos, and grow something that might make Kurt Russell proud.