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A lone figure, outcast from his society, emerges out of nowhere and begins a seemingly endless quest to rescue an idealized woman from the world that he sees in near-Manichean terms of purity and impure, good and evil. He is a veteran of a lost cause, a war on behalf of imperialism that ended in defeat, and embodies the discontented nationalist chauvinism, along with the psycho-sexual rage, that defines colonialism.
The above description could perfectly define the opening of John Ford’s classic THE SEARCHERS. But it also describes, with little need for modification, the plight of Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER. To identify these films as inter-related is not new scholarship, Paul Schrader was adamant in interviews that the latter picture was inspired by Ford, saying in an interview:
I feel, and other people feel, that the one thing THE SEARCHERS lacks-and it is a great film-is a scene between Scar, the Comanche chief, and Natalie Wood… If Ford had had the guts to show that their life together had some meaning, it would have made the ending-when John Wayne ‘rescues’ her-bitterly sweet. McBride 571
However, I would like to suggest that, using this relationship, it is perhaps tenable to subject the academic criticism of one film to the other. My thesis is that the analysis of TAXI DRIVER can and does inform our understanding of THE SEARCHERS and vice versa, particularly in regards to how the films operate on a psychological level. In these contexts it seems worthwhile to also mention that, in his September-October 2006 canon of classic films written for Film Comment magazine, Schrader ranked the Ford film among his ‘Gold’ list at number 12 (Schrader 48).
The plots of both films are relatively easily outlined and the reader is encouraged to watch both before reading further.
THE SEARCHERS begins in post-Civil War Texas when Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne), a former Confederate soldier who has a dubious postwar record, returns to the ranch of his brother Aaron (played by Walter Coy). After a brief interlude and reunion with Aaron’s family, including daughters Debbie (played by Lana and Natalie Wood) and Lucy (played by Pippa Scott), son Ben (played by Robert Lyden), and wife Martha (played by Dorothy Jordan) who Ethan is secretly in love with, the family is killed by a Comanche Indian raid on the homestead. In response, Ethan and the adopted Martin Pawley (played by Jeffrey Hunter) spend the next several years searching for Debbie, the only survivor of the family. However, it becomes increasingly clear throughout the picture that Ethan is a bitter and perhaps even insane racist who wishes not to save his niece as much as kill her after enough time has passed that would mean she has been married to one of the Comanches. This obsessive compulsion frames the rest of the narrative, which ends with Ethan returning Debbie home but being personally left out of the embrace of the community.
TAXI DRIVER is about a young Vietnam veteran named Travis Bickle (played by Robert DeNiro) who drives a cab during the graveyard shift in a New York City that exemplifies the worst aspects of the city during the 1970’s. He first becomes enchanted by a worker (played by Cybill Shepherd) in the presidential campaign of a populist-progressive candidate (played by Leonard Harris) who he alienates by bringing to a pornographic film. After he is rejected by her, he begins a regimen of exercise while buying a large number of guns. His obsessive enchantment then turns to a juvenile sex worker (played by Jodie Foster) who he decides he must rescue from her pimp (played by Harvey Keitel). This leads him to a final attack that ends in a hail of bullets.
This work began life as an academic paper written for a course taken during my undergraduate studies at Rhode Island College. Studying the Western films of director John Ford with Dr. Kaye Kalinak, I happened upon the Schrader quote.
Another element to consider is the mainstreaming in the American discourse of the imperial project, a project that was initially repudiated by the Left before the verbiage was co-opted by the Democratic Party and the Obama administration. The rise of ISIS and the subversion of the Arab Spring by the empire carries within it an opportunity to discuss a type of violence that has some striking similarities with the reaction of the Comanches in THE SEARCHERS. The other element relevant to this train of thought is the location of the Scorsese and Ford films in the space-time continuum with relation to the Vietnam War. The Ford film was produced in 1956, two years after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which effectively ended the French campaign and led to direct engagement by the American military. Scorsese’s film was released nine months after the end of American engagement, the fall of Saigon occurred on April 30, 1975 and the film premiered on February 8, 1976. Within the traditional Marxist discourse about both the Civil War of Ethan Edwards and the Vietnam War of Travis Bickle can be found a critique of imperialism that, with slight modification, can be applied to our current mishaps in the historic Levant and Global South.
This effort is indebted to four scholarly volumes that I will cite throughout, Searching for John Ford: A Life by Joseph McBride, John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era edited by Gaylyn Studlar and Matthew Bernstein, The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western edited by Arthur M. Eckstein and Peter Lehman, and Authorship and Context: The Films of Martin Scorsese 1963-1977 by Leighton Grist. The version of the Grist text I used originally was the book form published in 2000 by St. Martin’s Press; here I have chosen to use his original 1996 Ph.D thesis submitted to the University of Warwick.
As a final note, I should provide some definitions here for readers to better understand this material.
The term neoclassical economics, a recent trend in the economics discipline that has gone under alternating titles such as monetarism or supply-side economic, occurs throughout this text. For the past four decades, this trend has defined the economic policy thinking of a vast majority of political figures, demonstrated by the prefix neo- that is attached to neoliberal and neoconservative ideological descriptors. This is the idea that untrammeled free markets and abolition of protectionist tariffs would and can lead to a better economic system for all, though in practice these principles are almost never followed through and instead the financial sector ends up receiving huge public subsidies often. However, after almost half a century the results of these policies should be obvious to the reader. These theories are usually opposed to the New Deal-Great Society Keynesian economic policies that underwrote the thirty years that followed World War II. Quite often these neoclassical policies, due to their government over-reach and limiting of personal freedoms, are mistakenly called Communism or Socialism. Nevertheless, the policies of the Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations have been neoclassical ones.
I feel it is important to explain my own view on the word ‘race’ and the use of variations on this word, such as ‘inter-racial marriage’. The word itself in proper parlance was at one time used in biological taxonomy to classify various species and occurring below sub-species, i.e. the human race. However, in the advent of the imperial epoch, this word was falsely applied to humans to classify different ethnicities, i.e. the white race, on the basis of phenotype, meaning observable characteristics. In that sense, the notion of race and the tendency of racism that has plagued Western human relations for half a millennium is not only wrong in a moral and ethical sense, it is also a pseudo-science, akin to cold fusion or creationism. Therefore, I have chosen in this work to utilize the term ethnic and variations therein, such as ‘inter-ethnic coupling’.
Connected to this is the term affective erethism, defined as a hyper-sensitivity within those who are victims of racism due to a constant sense of inferiority coupled with a constant nearness to anger cause by this victimization.
In this train of thought, I have chosen to use the terms “European” or “Euro-American” as opposed to “white”. It was the wise man Noel Ignatiev who said
Abolitionism is first of all a political project: the abolitionists study whiteness in order to abolish it. Various commentators have stated that their aim is to identify and preserve a positive white identity. Abolitionists deny the existence of a positive white identity. We at Race Traitor, the journal with which I am associated, have asked some of those who think whiteness contains positive elements to indicate what they are. We are still waiting for an answer. Until we get one, we will take our stand with David Roediger, who has insisted that whiteness is not merely oppressive and false, it is nothing but oppressive and false. As James Baldwin said, “So long as you think you are white, there is no hope for you” (Ignatiev).
The exception to this will be seen in citations of sources used throughout this work. I believe this is holding true to an old Arab proverb, he who points one finger points three back at himself.
As a final note, I would be remiss to not express thanks to major figures who impacted this book’s publication. Dr. Kaye Kalinak, my advisor in film school, first encouraged me in this effort with her enthusiasm for the original term paper form of this material. I thank her for years of guidance and teaching me how to love John Ford. My eternal thanks to Lloyd Matsumoto, who helped form my skills as an author, remains solid. My deep appreciation goes to Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, editors at Counterpunch, whose daily efforts have opened me up to a whole new world of thinking and whose publication of my writing has given me a great sense of confidence. Dr. Noel Ignatiev did me a great favor in reading the first chapter of the book and pointing out places to edit. I give him great thanks for his time and for how he has taught me a great deal despite my sometimes failure to express this gratitude properly. Drs. Carolyn and Richard Fluehr-Lobban remain amazing friends and neighbors. And most importantly I cannot thank my parents enough for reading the preliminary drafts and supporting me on a long strange trip we are going on.
Ignatiev, Noel. “The Point Is Not To Interpret Whiteness But To To Abolish It.” The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. California, Berkley. 11-13 Apr. 1997. Race Traitor. Web. 2 Oct. 2016. <http://racetraitor.org/abolishthepoint.html>
McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003. Print.
Schrader, Paul. “Canon Fodder.” Film Comment Sept.-Oct. 2006: 33-49. Print.
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