A man has come home from a long stretch of military service. He is, in unspoken ways, haunted by his experiences. In the very pit of his being, cut with a lifetime of inadequacy against a masculine ideal, these experiences have stewed and compressed into violent, hateful tendencies. He, in turn, projects this inner turmoil onto groups that stand outside of the societal norm, and every time he comes into contact with these groups they feed his hatred. It burns within him, and every day his environment tosses fresh kindling onto the fire. His only method of coping with these feelings, which grow harder to ignore with each passing day, is to channel them into violent actions, to strike back against the things that have fed his inner darkness. And he has provided for himself a moral justification for these actions, by which he is the self-appointed avenger of mainstream society, violently suppressing those groups that he views as an impediment. He has actualized this mission in an obsessive quest to rescue a young female, representative of all that is innocent and chaste and worth protecting about mainstream society, from sexual conquest by a malignant group.
It is no secret that Paul Schrader’s screenplay for Taxi Driver was inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers. The blood of the western runs deep in Taxi Driver’s veins, albeit charged with the social reality of the 1970’s. By keying into the archetypes of the classical western, Scorsese and Schrader are providing a lens through which we can view the quintessentially American nature of Taxi Driver; how the violent, asocial drives that beat within Travis Bickle are endemic to the American experience. Though regarded as a shockingly radical film upon its release, further examination reveals the classical nature of Taxi Driver’s structure and story. By entrenching the film so firmly in Travis Bickle’s perspective, Scorsese and Schrader are exposing the latent malignancies of the classical western, the unspoken assumptions about manhood and violence and whiteness that drove their traditional narratives.
To be fair, The Searchers is not entirely uncritical of these Bickle-esque tendencies within its lead character, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. Countless Hollywood westerns before the social changes of the 1960s accepted racism against Native Americans as the implicit premise, many of these made by Ford and starring Wayne. Their first film together, Stagecoach (1939) – which would come to define the genre mold of the Hollywood western for decades – features the Apache Chief “Geronimo” as its primary antagonist and ends with a climactic cavalry charge, wherein scores of attacking Native Americans are cut down in a heroic blaze. When Wayne’s righteous outlaw the Ringo Kid blasts the volleys of Natives with his rifle, we are clearly meant to feel a sense of gritty vindication at their deaths. Ford’s camera follows the action from the perspective of the titular stagecoach; it does not linger on the bodies of the slain. Later Ford films such as Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Rio Grande (1950) would maintain racism against Native Americans as the implicit premise. But The Searchers foregrounds and focuses on Edwards’ racism in a way that belies its classical genre trappings. He hates Natives with a single-minded intensity, so much so that he intends to murder Debbie – the young white girl kidnapped by Comanche – when he finds her. So disgusted is he by the Comanche and their way of life that he cannot bear to allow the young girl to continue to live after she has adopted their ways. In one particularly cold-blooded moment, Edwards shoots out the eyes of a Comanche corpse. When questioned by the moralistic Reverend, he says: “By what that Comanche believes, ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit-land. Has to wander forever between the winds. You get it, Reverend.” This is not a heroic action; we are not meant to feel the gritty vindication we feel when the Ringo Kid defends the stagecoach from attack. It is an action motivated by hate, unnecessarily violent and cruel.
To be sure, many audiences in 1956 must have accepted Edwards’ racism at face value, because they shared his worldview. The film does, to some degree, invite this interpretation through its depiction of the savage brutality of its Native characters. They remain uncomplicated stock villains within the genre mold. The head Comanche, Scar, is accompanied by a swell of dark music whenever he appears; even his name is indicative of one-dimensional villainy. Early in the film, Debbie’s older sister Lucy is implied to have been raped and left for dead by the Comanche tribe. “What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out?” Though Edwards is afforded a degree of complexity, the genre mold of the western is still dominant, and that complexity must be drawn within a template that includes the stock villainy of its Native characters. Still, as Roger Ebert put it: “In the flawed vision of The Searchers, we can see Ford, Wayne, and the western itself, awkwardly learning that a man who hates Indians can no longer be an uncomplicated hero.”
What is suggested by The Searchers within the mold of an established Hollywood genre becomes the direct and inescapable subject of Taxi Driver. The malignancies of the Ethan Edwards character are buried beneath the genre trappings of The Searchers, and the narrative thrust of the film allows for a more typical heroism to come to the fore when he decides to keep Debbie alive and return her home (he does not, however, ask her opinion on the matter). The filming style of The Searchers, though beautiful and rugged and innovative, uses the objective grammar of classical Hollywood filmmaking: wide establishing shots, shot reverse shot in conversation, inserts for objects of importance. Scorsese’s method throughout Taxi Driver is to inescapably orient the viewer in the subjective viewpoint of Travis Bickle. We see what he sees, and through some alchemical magic of filmmaking, his thoughts become our thoughts. The numerous tight close-ups of Travis’ eyes, scanning the city streets from behind the windshield of his cab, further imply the dominating totality of his perspective. As Scorsese himself puts it in his essay on “The Leading Man,” we are exposed to “moral warfare being fought within his eyes.” (Scorsese, The Leading Man). The effect of the subjectivity of the perspective is that the viewer is made acutely aware that this is not how the objective world is, that we are experiencing it filtered through Travis’ eyes. Most movies are not set within the head of a particular character: the typical grammar of Hollywood filmmaking is designed for the purposes of even coverage, and we are viewing characters simply as they are. Scorsese is employing the ethos of twentieth-century limited perspective fiction in relaying the story of Travis Bickle; he (Travis) feels trapped in his own perspective along with the viewer. And everywhere he looks he sees things that sink him further into his own perspective, that feed and nourish his existing notions about the world. He says, in one of his diary entries that take us directly inside his tortured mind, “I feel a person should try to be a person like other people, and not devote oneself to morbid self-attention.” He sees other people and feels – somewhere deep within – that he is fundamentally unlike them. He regards them from the outside looking in as if they are all in on some secret that he is not privy to. The film can be seen as a series of attempts by Travis to connect, to reach out and find a person who will treat him as he has seen them treat others, and in all cases, he is rebuffed. Each rejection drives him further and further into “morbid self-attention,” coupled with the boiling outrage induced by the images he observes on the streets, through the distancing factor of his taxicab windshield, as if peering through a looking glass at a world he does not occupy.
And what does he see through his windshield? He sees decay, both urban and moral. He sees pimps and prostitutes, and his eyes (in the form of Scorsese’s camera) linger on the women’s strutting bodies. These purveyors of sex relate to each other in a manner he can observe but cannot replicate. In one scene, as he is stopped to pick up a passenger, he stares at a man with his foot up on a car, the man’s hand casually propped under the welcoming chin of a woman. Together they are locked in flirtation, dismissive of everything but each other. They are indifferent to Travis’ piercing gaze; they do not even notice him. Why should they notice some invisible cabbie? He has to be disgusted by these things that he sees because if he is not disgusted he must admit how deeply he desires them, desires to be like them. Disgust is his only bulwark against the truth of his feelings, the depths of his unquenched desire. Burning foremost within him is jealousy; he is jealous of the men who are not caged within his perspective, those who can speak the unspoken language of sex that is so foreign to him.
There is a factor to Travis’ disgust that I have not yet examined, and that is its latent racial component. Like Ethan Edwards, Travis’ hatred is strengthened by its direction towards a group that is racially different from him, a group that occupies a subordinate position in society. But unlike Edwards, whose hatred of Native Americans is accentuated at length in his dialogue, Travis’ feelings about black people remain in the realm of implication, communicated only through the subjectivity of his perspective. There is a racial homogeneity to the people he observes that strongly implies the specificity of his hatred. Because we are in the subjectivity of his perspective, we are looking at the things that he focuses on; and what he focuses on are those things that most sharpen his disgust, that most reinforce his existing worldview. Perhaps the clearest articulation of Travis’ racism occurs in the scene in the coffee shop when the soundtrack drowns out in favor of a low drone as Travis stares down two black men at the table across from him. He is immediately mistrustful of their presence, and presumably, on some level, they sense his mistrust, as they stare back in intimidation.
Further evidence of Travis’ racism is evident in the focus of his sexual desire, and the language with which he codifies that desire. His first of two obsessions with women, Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy, is predicated upon his view of her as standing apart from the decay that he so despises. “She was wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. They…cannot…touch…her.” Onto this anonymous beautiful woman he projects his need for connection, his deep longing for a likeminded person. The connotation of the “white dress” is an association with purity, one he seizes upon, grasping for her affection like a branch on his descent into insanity. He is comfortable with his affections for Betsy; that is a relationship that would be societally condoned, that he could tell his parents about (indeed he lies to them in his letter and says he’s been “going steady” with her for months). She represents everything he has been taught to desire; but he lacks any interest in her perspective as a person.
He is interested only in putting her on a pedestal, in worshipping her as a paragon of everything chaste and sacred and pure. She represents the side of Travis that strives to be a “person like other people,” and on some level, he fears that she is his last opportunity to become such a person. When he says, “They…cannot…touch…her,” what does he mean by “they?” The hordes of criminals, pimps, and prostitutes, nearly all of them black, that he sees as the absolute inverse of Betsy’s untouchable purity. They are corrupted, evil, base. But in actuality, in the cold objectivity of the real world, there is no relation between Betsy and those Travis observes from his taxi, inverse or otherwise. The relation is conjured solely within Travis’ mind. They represent the two competing drives of Travis Bickle. Onto Betsy, he has projected everything his conscious mind desires, everything he has come to revere in the world: beauty, purity, chastity, whiteness. Onto the street criminals, the pimps, and prostitutes, he has projected everything stewing deep within him, threatening to overtake the remaining vestiges of hope in his soul: disgust, hatred, malignancy, darkness. In his mind these elements have become opposed, because they are not themselves in his mind at all; they are the belligerent parties of his “moral warfare.” They are representative of the two conceivable possibilities for responses to his alienation: he could choose the path of Betsy, if only he could attain her, and become “a person like other people.” He can escape his stewing darkness and emerge into the light, and with just that one connection he can fill the hole at his center. Or he can sink into “morbid self-attention,” cutting himself off from the final withering strings that tether him to normal society and descend into the only remaining agency left to him: violent retribution.
His second obsession, with the child prostitute Iris, is the film element that ties Taxi Driver most closely to The Searchers. Just when all hope seems lost for Travis, his devotion to rescuing Iris from her sex work and returning her to a lifestyle sanctioned by mainstream society gives him a final purpose, a last ideal to strive toward. But this devotion exists alongside a far more troubling desire, to assassinate the Presidential candidate Charles Palantine, who must have become so irrevocably associated with the sting of Betsy’s rejection to Travis that the ubiquity of Palantine’s posters and speeches tortured his very being. That Travis’ massacre to rescue Iris comes only after his assassination attempt on Palantine is foiled implies that he is motivated not by an altruistic desire to rescue Iris, but rather by his deep thirst for cathartic violence. The mission of Iris’ “rescue” provides only his thin moral justification. In The Searchers, Edwards’ rescue of Debbie is similarly motivated by a desire to quench hatred through cathartic violence, but the film is less critical of Edwards’ intentions. The effect of the happy ending is to imply that Edwards was a good guy all along, that his love for Debbie trumps his hatred of the Comanche, and that his mission to rescue her was motivated by a genuine desire to deliver her from an unseemly life.
Both Travis and Ethan regard themselves as engaging in a “civilizing mission,” the central thematic framework of the classical Hollywood western. The process of civilizing the rugged, morally base environment of the west, carried out by benign and peaceful settlers, is threatened by the wild elements of the west: the Natives. They murder Debbie’s family and kidnap she and her sister, in an act motivated by the desire to root out the white, European societal values being extended to the west. The Ethan Edwards figure, the lone gunslinger, stands outside the warmth and purity of the settler family. He is the only one who can defend the civilizing mission because he is willing to compromise it through violence. As such, he recognizes the essential sadness of his station, that he may serve the civilizing mission but cannot quite reap its benefits. This is the point of the film’s famous final shot: Edwards, having delivered Debbie back to the arms of a peaceful settler family, must go on alone. Travis Bickle sees himself as occupying a similar role. He is the only one who can defend the values of mainstream society against the encroaching decay, because he is willing to practice reciprocal violence against said decay of a sort that would compromise the civilized elements (Betsy, Palantine, etc.). In both cases, their hatred of an out-group (black criminals for Travis, Native Americans for Edwards) is motivated by their own exclusion from the civilized in-group.
In the genre mold of the western, this civilizing mission is taken for granted. Audiences did not regard the world of The Searchers as reflective of the real world, but rather it is allowed to exist within the world of the western, within an established Hollywood genre mold. Its values can be true because they are true within this curated movie context. It is not intended to represent a genuine depiction of the historical reality of the American west, only the well-established movie mythology of that historical period. Taxi Driver, on the other hand, is set in the social reality of the 1970s, contemporary to its audience, and Travis’ adoption of rugged western values takes on a malignant, violent, asocial strain. This movie-based practice, by which a lone hero (leading man) uses necessary violence to vanquish a threat to the civilizing mission, thereby allowing that mission to continue, is revealed to be driven by nothing but bloodlust. It is only because he cannot carry out his assassination of a Presidential candidate, such a towering and obvious symbol of classical American values and institutions, that he turns his violent gaze to the civilizing mission of Iris’ rescue.
Whereas Betsy is nothing but pure to Travis (that is until she rejects him and becomes “just like the rest”), Iris is purity corrupted. This corrupting force is Sport, her pimp. Much has been made of Sport’s wearing of a Native American headband as a connection to Scar, the villain of The Searchers. In one scene Travis calls him “chief.” On some level Travis desires Iris; he gets close to sex with her like holding his hand to a flame, and when she begins to unbutton his pants he hesitates before stopping her. But he channels his desire for her into a more comprehensible drive for retribution against those who have corrupted her virginal purity. His desires cannot be slaked with sex, and so he turns to violence.
Scorsese is suggesting, perhaps, that the violent behavior of all classical movie heroes is motivated by a similar malignant bloodlust to that which drives Travis. When dragged into the light of reality, the desire for murderous revenge cannot exist within psychologically sound individuals. Buried within the western – and consequently in the quintessentially American psyche that it represents – is a drive to practice violence against out-groups. The western mythologizes this drive, justifying it as a noble quest. Taxi Driver examines said drive critically, revealing that it is not the evil of the out-group that motivates violent retribution; rather it is the deep and unexamined inadequacy of the driven, spurred by a misguided sense of purpose, that sends men on self-appointed quests of violent heroism.
Brian Magid is an NYU graduate and screenwriter, with an interest in the supernatural, the macabre, the past, and the future (the present can get lost). He lives in Brooklyn with his cat, Nymeria.