Brian Henderson, in an essay subtitled “An American Dilemma”, teases out the direct connections between the production and release of THE SEARCHERS and the coincidental Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that legally desegregated public schools, writing at one point “Fear of intermarriage between black and white was one ground of opposition to Brown, both explicit and implicit” (Henderson 67). He explains in this same essay that kinship and marriage between caucasian and American Indian was far from taboo in 1956 and instead one should “substitute black for red and read a film about red-white relations in 1868-73 as a film about black-white relations in 1956” (65).
However, what is noteworthy is that this criticism fails to also account for Cold War politics and the role of the American military in Southeast Asia at this time. When the film was released, the Korean War had ended less than three years previously. It was two years since the French had been defeated at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, the battle which precipitated a higher level of American involvement in the war. In February of 1956, three months before the film’s release, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had delivered his so-called “secret speech” that detailed the nature of the Stalin years. This event split the worldwide Communist movement into pro-Chinese and pro-Russian factions while causing the final collapse of the American Communist Party.
This is relevant to a discussion of THE SEARCHERS and TAXI DRIVER because the attitude of a wide segment of the American population regarding Cold War politics directly impacts the way each film narrative is told. It also impacts how one understands both Ethan Edwards, the ex-Confederate soldier, and Travis Bickle, the Vietnam veteran, as disenchanted soldiers who fought on the side of losing imperialist projects.
Furthermore, the issues of race and racism dealt with in both films were part and parcel of the Cold War discourse, the Soviet Union would actively agitate against American segregation and racism in a variety of ways. For example, the Soviet-aligned Polish museum at Auschwitz concentration camp featured a photo exhibit comparing the Warsaw ghetto to contemporary African American slums. When the Soviet Sputnik satellite would fly over Little Rock, Arkansas, Radio Moscow would announce this as a message of solidarity with students who were trying to integrate the public school system. THE SEARCHERS was released just as the Cold War’s Asian theaters of battle were beginning to heat up and TAXI DRIVER was released shortly after the final collapse of that American project. This also corresponds to Grist’s point that historical context is one of the “elements can be separated or analysed in isolation or in combination with any of the others [alongside authorship].”
It is my contention, moving forward, that criticism of THE SEARCHERS, when combined with criticism of TAXI DRIVER, offers us a vital set of insights about the reaction to the election of President Barack Obama that later materialized in his successor Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Although Obama was always a right-leaning neoliberal with no illusions about America’s imperial agenda in Eurasia and Africa, described as a Libertarian by Andrew Levine, the Right wing media engaged in a campaign of near-lunatic reaction, describing him as alternatively a radical Muslim and Communist.
This ideological matrix can be understood when one understands the criticism of THE SEARCHERS regarding inter-ethnic coupling because of the inherent connection between the black radical tradition, Euro-American fear of property expropriation, and a psychological fetishization of notions of European feminine purity. And in understanding this reactionary element, the criticism of TAXI DRIVER and the insights regarding the psychology of the gun as a phallic symbol becomes much more tangible as a profile of the militia movement that has existed on the fringes of the Republican Party for the past three decades following the ascendancy of Reaganism. These two films are not merely comments on yesterday, they are prophecies of today and tomorrow.