Facial hair as a barometer for evil as typified in The Work and the Glory series.
This post will examine all three of The Work and the Glory films. For the sake of clarification, only the first, Russell Holt’s The Work and the Glory, will be referenced by that title. The two sequels, both directed by Sterling Van Wagenen, will be referred to by their subtitles – American Zion and A House Divided, respectively. It should also be noted that while a few comparisons will be made between the films and the books by Gerald Lund, this criticism focuses uniquely on the films.
With the publishing of The Work and the Glory: A Pillar of Light in 1990, Gerald Lund began what has become the best-selling series of LDS historical fiction to date. The nine book series has sold over two million copies and the book on tape has reportedly also sold exceptionally well. But the series received what seems to have become the ultimate validation in this day and age when Larry H. Miller announced in 2003 that it would be adapted into a feature film. “With this much of a following,” Miller stated,” and with the significance of the events the series examines, it’s time to make this historical story into a quality feature film.”
The magnitude of the undertaking was underlined by the involvement of Deseret Books’ own president and CEO Sheri L. Dew, who personally represented the interests of both author and publisher. Even then, Lund was brought on board as a script consultant. “We don’t underestimate the magnitude of this film project,” said producer Scott Swofford. “We are properly funded, have a book that flows easily into a screenplay, and have collected the most qualified talent to produce what we believe will be a film of excellence. This story requires that.” Added Dew, “The Work and the Glory series is one-of-a-kind. As the publisher of this series, we have complete confidence in the integrity of those producing this movie and that the integrity of the books will be maintained while crafting an artistic and first-rate movie. Everyone involved with this production epitomizes excellence and quality. This movie is going to touch many lives.”
The purpose of this critique is to examine the story thematics in light of the need to tailor a written work to the demands of the visual consumer, which the films do largely by reducing or replacing outright depictions of evil with the presence of facial hair.
In the audio commentary for The Work and the Glory, Holt laments giving actor John Woodhouse (playing the part of Will Murdock) a beard, calling the decision both “unconscious,” and “stereotypical.” It is this statement, particularly this idea of the stereotypical “evil beard” which necessitates an closer look not only at Holt’s work within the series, by Van Wagenen’s as well.
Much like the white hat/black hat myth of the Western (a stereotype that derived not from actual practice but from a children’s poll), the “evil beard” has no firm roots in American iconography. Hitler’s square mustache now lives in infamy, even though it was preceded and popularized by the likes of harmless funny-men such as Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. Joseph Stalin’s handlebar did nothing to stymy the sex appeal and good guy marketability of Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds. Vaudeville comedian Groucho Marx’s grease paint mustache (combined with his eyebrows and glasses) has become entrenched as a joke shop novelty. Cinema’s first major sex symbol of the sound era was pencil-thin mustachioed Clark Gable, he of Gone With The Wind and It Happened One Night immortality.
Furthermore, an appeal to some of the most iconic of American films offers contradicting evidence to Holt’s claim that the beard is stereotypical of evil. In George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, the beard is symbolic of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ascension from ego to super ego as a benevolent Jedi, while the Emperor remains clean-shaven throughout. Indiana Jones frequently battled immaculately shorn villains with a rustic growth of his own. In both cases, beards were symbolic of a certain natural earthiness – a healthy progression in the case of Obi-Wan and the mark of a survivor in the case of Indy. Even feature animation, that bastion of moral values so eagerly consumed by Mormon culture, produces no clear stereotype. For every Captain Hook, Jafar, and Bowler Hat Guy, there’s equally a Gaston, Frollo, and Syndrome. What’s more, the righteous Prince Charmings, Aladdins, and Tarzans are balanced by the Gepettos, Merlins, and six out of seven dwarves.
Even outside of Hollywood, bearded heroes exist in iconography ranging from Jesus and the ancient prophets to Santa Claus. LDS artwork from Arnold Freiberg and others (which, despite one’s opinion for or against, is undeniably prevalent in LDS houses of worship), has given us bearded Nephis, Almas, Abinadis, Helamans, and Captain Moronis.
To what, therefore, could Holt be referring when he claims that giving Woodhouse a beard was an “unconscious” and “stereotypical” choice? The answer is almost certainly Mormon culture. Somewhere along the line, Mormonism began to identify facial hair as evil on an “unconscious” and “stereotypical” level, at least cinematically. Surely, every Mormon can reference a benevolent mustachioed role model from their own Mormon life, but can they do so from Mormon cinema?
To be fair, The Work and the Glory series is not the first to implement the “evil beard.” In Kevin Reynolds’ The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), facial hair is openly symbolic of evil, but only in terms of the main character. At the beginning of the film, Edmond Dantes enjoys the innocence of his fortunate youth while completely beardless. But after betrayal at the hands of his supposed friends lands him in prison for several years, he grows an understandably great length of beard. After his escape from the Chateau d’If and discovery of the treasure of Monte Cristo, Dantes returns to Paris with a groomed beard that serves two functions. First, it disguises him from all of his former associates. Second, and more importantly, it allows him to perform acts of heartless revenge. How can this be traced to his beard? Simple. After revenging himself upon two of his adversaries, Dantes reveals himself to the third and most dastardly, Fernand Mondego, sans beard. Without his beard, not only is he suddenly recognized as the spectral Dantes, but his thirst for vengeance is sated and he’s able to extend forgiveness to his most despicable rival. Without the beard to render him evil, Dantes now becomes the defender to Fernand’s aggressor in the climactic battle. The film transforms author Alexandre Dumas’ story from one of revenge to one of redemption and achieving the American Dream, as evidenced by the tale of Edmond Dante’s beard.
But unlike The Count of Monte Cristo, wherein the symbol only applies to one character, the beard-as-evil iconography exists throughout the entire framework of The Work and the Glory series.
In the beginning, Benjamin Steed (Sam Hennings) and his two oldest sons, Joshua and Nathan (Eric Johnson and Alexander Carroll, respectively), are all clean-shaven, respectably-groomed adult males, despite their provincial lifestyle. With the exception of the first scene (in which Benjamin buys a farm in Palmyra from a bearded land agent), the first real appearance of a beard comes from Caleb Jackson (Marcus Hester) when Joshua goes into town to essentially see his love interest, Lydia McBride (Tiffany Dupont). Drunks and lechers – mostly bearded men – roam the docks, an area firmly established as disreputable, and this scene marks Joshua’s initial flirtation with the evil that will later consume him (i.e., lead him to grow a beard). While Joshua comes across early on as an incarnation of Laman and Lemuel of old because of his murmuring attitude, it is nevertheless significant that the first person we actually see influencing him down a dark path is the bearded Caleb.
Of course, the most significant introduction to evil facial hair comes courtesy of the Murdocks – Will and David (Phillip DeVona) – and Mark Cooper (Jonathan Quint). After harrassing Joseph Smith (Jonathan Scarfe) on a trip into town, they entice Joshua into drinking in a darkened setting and plotting about getting their hands on “Ol’ Joe’s gold bible.” While this may seem sufficient enough to indicate their nefariousness, they also share another common bond: the beard. Later, along with several other bearded men, they accost Emma Smith (Sarah Darling) in the street, but the beardless Nathan defends her.
At this point, the argument for coincidence is just. However, as soon as Joshua is kicked out of his father’s house, the uncanniness of the phenomenon only grows as Joshua begins to grow a beard. The conscious decision to have Jonathan grow a beard in accordance to his descent into darkness not only calls attention to his beard, but necessarily the beard of every other character in the film, and eventually, the series. Furthermore, the measure of Joshua’s evil correlates exactly with the size of his beard.
At first, as Joshua begins to mingle with the Murdocks, it is nothing more than a shadow of indolent scruff. However, as plans begin to take shape to assault Joseph and steal his “golden bible,” Jonathan’s beard grows along with his stake in the plot. His evil initiative and facial hair evolve proportionately. This is not true of the Murdocks and their static facial hair, who begin following Joshua’s orders once his beard is longer than Will’s , i.e., his evil is greater. After fleeing Palmyra and becoming a wanted man, Joshua is next seen with a massive beard, helped along surely by the addition of modernly frowned-upon vices such as gambling and smoking.
But what of the other beards in the film? Martin Harris is the prime example of the “venerable beard.” In his case, it probably exists more for historical accuracy than anything, just as Joseph Smith was historically beardless. Historical accuracy will generally trump visual motif in a film by church member, for church members, about church members. Hence the evil beard is rendered moot not because Martin Harris is unshakably righteous, but because to the Mormon eye, Martin Harris is not Martin Harris unless he has his chin beard. It must be conceded, however, that there are a few other venerable beards placed here and there throughout the film, largely among the elderly, or in some cases, the friendly non-Mormons. In the modern LDS parlance, theirs are mostly beards of omission, being too groomed and presentable to be outright evil, but nonetheless still too bearded to be Mormon.
Before examining the remaining films, a generic observation must be made concerning “beards in the crowd.” Most viewers, upon watching the films, will notice that there are certainly beards in the Mormon crowd as well as clean-shaven faces in the mobs. However, they never speak. They are strictly extras. Only clean-shaven faces speak for Mormonism in the films, while only bearded faces lead the mobs.
The practice continues throughout American Zion. At the beginning of the film, a trimmed Joshua returns to Palmyra to extend an olive branch of sorts to Lydia (now played by Sera Bastian). But, rebuffed and repudiated, Joshua slinks back to Missouri with a once-again large beard for his proposal to Jesse (Emily Podleski), after which they are married (outside of Mormonism) by a bearded minister with a mutton-chopped witness. Later on, when Jesse fails him in his attempt to further acts of evil, he pursues her into the street in anger. While the films feature a number of more glaring departures from the books, this understated sequence is particularly telling. Whereas in the books Joshua beats Jesse so severly that the evidence of it is still visible weeks later when she’s seen by Nathan, the movie opts to have Jesse escape. In keeping with the motif of the series, the audience doesn’t need to see Joshua beat Jesse as he does in the books because, visually speaking, his beard compensates. It is evil enough for the viewer to spare the necessity of visual violence. While the integrity of the choice can be debated from many sides, it would nevertheless seem to call into question Swofford’s assertion that the book “flows easily into a screenplay.”
The manifestation of the evil beard extends beyond Joshua, however. In more than one scene, Joseph is accosted or beaten by bearded and unshaven men. Melissa Steed’s courter, Carl Rogers, lacks facial hair, thus making him an acceptable enough candidate for marriage that after one viewing, he’s never shown again – only referenced, and indirectly at that. Jessica is also later on protected in Missouri by a beardless guardian, the opposite of her husband not only in form, but feature.
But what truly makes the “evil beard” stand out in American Zion is not, however, in its use within Joshua’s storyline. Remember that because Joshua’s beard is an obvious choice by the production, it calls every other beard – or lack thereof – into question. If the “evil beard” truly exists, then it must do so with every character. Therefore, an examination of Benjamin and Nathan is equally appropriate. It is not coincidence that Nathan has remained clean cut throughout the first film and into the second as it evidences his good nature and firm testimony. And Benjamin, who becomes the narrator of both American Zion and A House Divided, meanwhile, remains a viable protagonist and candidate for conversion precisely because he remains culturally ideal, i.e., beardless. But the introduction of facial hair into their lives underscores their respective conflicts.
In American Zion, Ben first indulges in the shadow of a beard when Martin Harris berates him for his stubborness and lack of commitment. While Ben’s clean shaven face doesn’t return in accordance with his baptism, it does however correlate to his support of Joseph. Later on, as Zion’s Camp marches forth, it is Nathan who begins to meddle with facial hair, sporting a few days’ growth in conjunction with giving voice to his sudden doubts about Joseph. He is gently rebuked by his father, who also grows some scruff to flirt with his new foray into evil… whether or not to kill Joshua in the film’s climax for whipping Nathan. This is not insignificant as it is the only time in the trilogy that both Nathan and Benjamin dally in true damnation (Benjamin withholds forgiveness much of the film, but remains an upstanding person). Could it be coincidence? Surely the rigors of Zion’s Camp merited a few days’ repreive from shaving? This explanation could easily satisfy except that Joseph Smith, Parley Pratt, and Brigham Young remain perfectly clean shaven… an outward symbol of their inward fortitude. Their grooming, as their testimonies, remains unyielding. With Nathan and Benjamin, as with Joshua, the beard therefore remains symbolic of evil.
A House Divided begins where American Zion left off. Joshua has left Missouri to turn over a new leaf as witnessed by his stately pony-tail, groomed whiskers, and clean chin. This dramatic change in appearance suddenly grants him a slew of new abilities, such as politeness, erect posture, educated speech, and polished manners. However, Joshua’s return to Missouri and the evils of old is accompanied by ungathered hair and facial scruff. Joshua is later made a captain in the Missouri militia by mutton-chopped Governor Boggs (another example of the evil beard giving way to historical detail). Joshua is joined in his new post by several bearded others, including the primary face of his antagonism, Bobby Johnson (Michael Bowen). On one occasion, clean-shaven Mormons even defy him, which leads to tar-and-feathering.
In the film’s (and trilogy’s) climax, Joshua rides out to stop the mob from descending upon his encamped family. After diffusing the situation, Joshua turns his back on Bobby, giving the latter an opening to attack. Unable to save himself in time, Joshua is rescued by Nathan, who shoots and kills Bobby. The facial hair motif in play throughout the series underscores the dynamic of good and evil perfectly in this scene. Being bearded himself, Joshua is unable to save himself by killing Bobby. Had he done so, his beard would have translated it into an act of evil. But Nathan, righteous by virtue of beardlessness saves him. Joshua conquers Bobby through the proxy of clean-shaven Nathan, thus saving himself from shedding blood while bearded.
The “evil beard” features just as prominently in the film’s other subplots. Bearded and mustachioed detractors torment Joseph after the collapse of the Kirtland Safety Society Bank, including his brother William and golden plate witness David Whitmer. Note the return of the venerable beard as well, this time exempted for its Rabbinic significance during an attack on Joseph’s house as it is more conventionally symbolic of the bearer’s faith, not his failings. On the other hand, Ben and Nathan return to their clean-shaven ways, their previous temptations now behind them, culminating in Ben’s baptism.
One final scene is critical to the examination. As a group of weary pioneers (including Jesse) trek back into Missouri, they are met by a band of bearded men on horseback. The tension is palpable in the faces of the pioneers as the band approaches even though the only really dubious aspect about them is their facial hair. A great sigh of relief goes up when it’s revealed that the band is actually a Mormon delegation sent to welcome and assist the beleaguered immigrants. In this case, facial hair is not symbolic of evil personified, but rather, evil perceived. The filmmakers use their own convention to manipulate audience expectation.
Ultimately, the question is “why?” Is the “evil beard” a stereotype as Holt intimates? Specifically, why is this a stereotype, and if so, why is it being perpetuated, consciously or otherwise? How does a religious audience reconcile the prevalence of the evil beard within a major motion picture when that religion’s own deities are universally depicted as being bearded? At the very least, one can argue that the filmmakers simply made the choice to create a visual motif to underline certain thematics at work within the film. The problem with this argument is that in many instances within the films, facial hair didn’t merely underline depictions of evil, it replaced them. More troubling still is the notion that it did so as part of a stereotype in action.
Financeers, producers, and publishers all promised a film of utmost quality. And it’s very possible that the professional look and diagetic content of the finished product have merited that distinction. However, while those considerations may outweigh the perpetuation of the “evil beard,” they do not disguise it. It seems significant that The Work and the Glory series has created a symbol of evil not based in Mormon doctrine, but Mormon culture, specifically, Mormon missionary culture. It is not the purpose of this criticism to postulate whether this is good or bad, but rather, to simply point out that it is. And that it is leads to this final question: Why would the translation of the most beloved fiction of the LDS faith to an audio/visual medium require that its portrayal of evil be reinforced or replaced by a cultural steretype, especially when that translation was intended for the exact same audience?