Over a black screen, the title reads: “TEXAS 1868.” After the title fades the screen is finally illuminated as a door swings open and the silhouette of a woman stands in the open doorway. As the woman steps forward the camera slowly follows her through the doorway and outside and when it turns we are given the signature, most beautiful shot in the outstanding career of John Ford. John Wayne, deep in the distance, flanked on each side by two massive rock formations in Monument Valley, riding slowly on horseback from background to foreground as his sister in law Martha, the silhouette, now stands in full color in the foreground waiting for her brother-in-law and Civil War veteran, Ethan Edwards. The breathtaking shot and subsequent reunion that opens The Searchers, temporarily masks the real conflict of the film, which is the fact that Ethan Edwards, in perhaps John Wayne’s greatest performance, is a Confederate soldier, returning home form the Civil War, full of hate and bitterness, unable to accept the defeat of the Confederacy. Ethan’s hatred doesn’t stop with his War experience as we will soon find out that he detests Native Americans as well. While they were made twenty years apart and at almost opposite ends of the American landscape, the Texas frontier of the mid 1800’s and the gritty, filthy, and steamy New York City Streets of the 1970’s, The Searchers and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver share almost identical protagonists.
The Searchers has always been one of the most misunderstood films of all time. Sadly, a large portion of the moviegoing audience saw this film as another heroic performance by John Wayne as he hunts down the Comanche Indians who have murdered his brother’s family and kidnapped their young daughter, Debbie, played by Natalie Wood. Ethan Edwards, along with his nephew Martin, played by Jeffrey Hunter, embark on a years long journey to track down Debbie. When they finally catch up with her they find that she has been indoctrinated into the Comanche civilization. This becomes too much for Ethan whom upon rescuing Debbie, contemplates whether or not she would be better off dead. The film ends with another doorway shot only this time we are on the inside looking out. Looking out at Ethan as he stands helplessly outside his family’s home, knowing that he cannot go inside while at the same time, completely unsure of where he will go next. The film is not a glorious tale of John Wayne rescuing his young niece from danger. It is a tale of hatred and how it can consume a man and turn him loose on the world around him. It is clear that Ethan Edwards is suffering some type of PTSD from his Civil War experience, not to mention him having a particular disdain and bloodlust for Native Americans. This is a direct line to Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese’s story about a Vietnam Veteran returning to normal life, feeling increasingly isolated in the summer of 1976, a time when New York City was quite possibly more dangerous than the Wild West.
Summer of 1976. As the fictional Democratic Presidential candidate, Charles Palantine ramps up his campaign, a taxi driver named Travis Bickle begins arming himself with several automatic weapons with seemingly no motive in sight. What starts as a way of defending himself on the tough and dangerous city streets spirals out of control when Travis begins writing violent and deranged missives in his diary about “cleaning up the garbage and the filth in the city.” He then shoots and kills a thief in a deli. before he befriends a teenage prostitute named Iris, played by Jodie Foster. As Travis and Iris get to know each other, Travis sees that Iris is being controlled by her pimp, played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel with his long hair parted down the middle resembles a Native American, even going as far as telling Travis that he once had a horse in Coney Island. Travis then makes it his quest to save Iris from her abusers, mush the same way Ethan quested to save Debbie from the Commanche’s. Travis goes on a killing spree at the end of the film as he rescues Iris from another session with a John. This is the plot of Taxi Driver, Scorsese and Schrader’s journey into the decay and danger of New York City in the 1970’s and how it can push one lonely and isolated man to the breaking point. Much like John Wayne in The Searchers, this is definitely one of the best performance’s in the scintillating career of Robert De Niro. Travis Bickle not only shares the intense hatred of humanity with Ethan Edwards but with his arsenal of revolvers and cowboy boots, Travis looks like he belongs next to Ethan in the Wild West, battling with Commanches.
Martin Scorsese has always referenced John Ford and The Searchers in particular but it was in maybe his most daring film Taxi Driver that his devotion to the great John Ford was on full display.