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““Saigon … shit. I’m still only in Saigon,” says a scruffy, broken Capt. Benjamin Willard, peering out through slatted window blinds while on the violent bender that opens Apocalypse Now. “Every time I think I’m going to wake up back in the jungle.” But when we see the Special Forces assassin travel deep into that jungle, he is clean-shaven. Even on a river boat, headed for the heart of the American military’s darkness, he takes the time to shave smartly and neatly. John Rambo, too, keeps his own facial hair to a minimum on his bloody forays into redemption and revenge. When confronted with the prospect of a “dry shave” by sadistic policemen in First Blood, he beats them up and escapes into the hills—where he continues to shave himself, presumably with a gigantic bowie knife.
You could consume more than half a century of American popular culture, from World War II to Korea to Vietnam to September 11, without encountering many bearded manly heroes; facial hair was generally reserved for wild enemies foreign and domestic, swarthy terrorists and libertine hippies. Even American westerns posited a surprising number of neatly trimmed frontier protagonists, reserving scruff for their foes. Italian-produced spaghetti westerns, which introduced Clint Eastwood’s perpetually unshaven man with no name, seem the exception that proves the rule, deploying beards as to emphasize that their protagonists are deeply flawed antiheroes, operating outside mainstream norms.
In the twenty-first century, however, America’s man of the hour is a follicle farm. Hipsters affect the lumberjack’s hirsute machismo. Genteel movie stars like George Clooney and Paul Rudd tantalize paparazzi with full, bushy beards. Police departments in Michigan and Texas have relaxed their officers’ notoriously strict grooming standards to permit beards and goatees. Faux-folksy politicians like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former House speaker Paul Ryan attempt to transform their brands with a macho hairy mug—just as John Kerry and Al Gore did a few years earlier, with limited success. Our Hollywood war heroes, armed men who go bump in the night, grow facial hair so voluminous that perhaps their beards are what do the heavy bumping. Even that most American of fictional G.I.s, the idealistic Steve Rogers, returns from a depressive self-exile in Avengers: Infinity War with a sexy beard that says “Captain America has seen some shit.””
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