See ‘The Searchers,’ and the making of Travis Bickle

The Searchers. ()
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Simon Abrams

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This weekend, as part of its "See it Big!" series, the Museum of the Moving Image will screen Taxi Driver with The Searchers, which screenwriter-turned-director Paul Schrader acknowledged as Taxi Driver's influence.

The Searchers is often considered the best of director John Ford's films, which include essential westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Stagecoach. It stars John Wayne as haunted antihero Ethan Edwards, a character who, like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, is defined by his outsider status. He cannot reintegrate into a society that a singular, traumatic event has forced him out of.

After his niece is kidnapped by Scar (Henry Brandon), the leader of a faction of Comanche Indians, Edwards spends years hunting her down. His rabid monomania takes its toll on him. His intimate knowledge of the Indians has made him almost feral—at one point he tooks about having shot out a Comanche's eyes so his victim's soul wouldn't be able to escape its body.

But Edwards is not just a white gunfighter-frontiersman whose knowledge of Native American customs has made him half-man and half-other. His self-identification as a racial and cultural hybrid is just a symptom of his psychosis. Edwards describes Scar and the Comanches in excessively heated terms; when we finally see that Scar behaves the way Edwards says he will, it's a shock.

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The fact that Edwards's experiential knowledge of the Comanches is conflated with an irrational, even irredeemable, fury is key to understanding how Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) was inspired by Wayne's character.

Much has been made of the last scene of The Searchers, in which Edwards lingers outside and cannot bring himself to cross the threshold of his niece's front door. He's unable to rejoin the normative space of the home, and that's basically how things should be. He doesn't belong in a domestic setting, just as Bickle's bloody mission to rescue Jodie Foster's young prostitute in Taxi Driver must inevitably end badly for him. There is no chance for redemption for either Edwards or Bickle, but just a faint hope that they can accomplish something good for someone else.

A trait that distinguishes Bickle from Edwards is the disdain he has for the society he lives in. Bickle has reimagined himself as a white knight. He's delusional, but when he looks down his nose at people he wishes would be obliterated by God, he's disparaging his own urban home. The savages that Bickle has intimate knowledge of have taken over, making his quest to rescue something elusively pure in either Foster or Cybil Shepherd's character that much more vital.

When Bickle makes an appearance at a political rally later in Taxi Driver, his mirrored sunglasses make it impossible to read his intentions. But his Mohawk is a declaration of war, especially given that the rally is held at Columbus Circle. Here, Bickle acerbically declares that he's a native New Yorker and hence just the kind of monster needed to stop Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris).

Bickle may rail against the "scum" that he considers to be typical New Yorkers, but after a certain point, he chooses to camouflage himself as one of them. That transgressive would-be act of passing also shows you deeply misguided and delusional Bickle, who takes Shepherd's character to a Swedish porno on their first date, really is. His Mohawk is his disdainful imitation of typical New Yorkers. It's also probably the most direct connection between his character and Edwards in The Searchers.

Edwards and Bickle turned savage not as a matter of transforming into the enemy but accepting that they're the enemy. They know they're monstrous and therefore incapable of rejoining society at large. In Edwards' case, that's simply because he's too far gone; in Bickle's case, it's also because there's nothing worth returning to—Shepherd's character is no longer a viable mate and Foster is much too young.

The Searchers and Taxi Driver each end with a heroic act of self-abnegation, but only in the later film is that gesture directly suicidal. Bickle takes the self-destructive impulses exhibited by Edwards' character farther, all the way to the end.