It is my intention in this chapter to develop a method through which one might watch THE SEARCHERS with a perspective informed by insights about TAX DRIVER. Putting it another way, I want to watch the John Ford film with Travis Bickle’s eyes.
By thinking about THE SEARCHERS, a traditional Hollywood Western, within the contexts of TAXI DRIVER, a New Hollywood psychological thriller with a deeply personalized first person perspective, the more problematic elements of the earlier film are not as much excused as given a new sense of meaning. Individual characters take on new dimensions and new understandings are generated by exposing said characters to criticism of the other film. For example, how does the viewer’s understanding of Martha in the Ford film change when considered in light of the critical insights offered about the characters played by Cybill Shepherd and Jodie Foster? More interestingly, what about vice versa, particularly considering points raised by Dr. Kaye Kalinak’s analysis of music in THE SEARCHERS that suggests interesting points about characters?
In re-watching the film, the overwhelming point that strikes this author is how theological the text actually is. Ford scholarship for a long time now has emphasized that religion and religious ceremony forms a pillar of his notions of communal solidarity. Yet this film has a deeper element of religion in its storytelling. It is used as a subtle marker of the underlying white supremacy that Ford critiques.
Grist opens his study by outlining the plot of the film in a brief paragraph wherein he says Travis Bickle is “appalled by New York’s open sexuality” (Grist 153). This of course defines the basic motivation of Ethan Edwards in his quest also, he changes his goal of rescuing his niece to killing her once she has reached the age of maturity and would hypothetically be married to one of her Comanche captors. He goes on to describe the picture as an “Urban Western”. The author writes:
Urban Westerns transplant the lone Western hero into a corrupt, dangerous, and usually big-city setting… [They] are the ideological obverse of much New Hollywood Cinema, proffering a patently reactionary mediation of the time’s social and political turmoil… In New Hollywood Cinema the source of discord is commonly the repressiveness of social and legal institutions. In Urban Westerns it is, by contrast, the liberalism of the Law (in all its senses) that is the cause of social breakdowns: a perspective which evokes that of the Nixonian Right. Either protagonists are frustrated by ‘liberal’ legal niceties or the Law is ‘too soft’ and utterly ineffectual… Violent masculine retribution is central… This is complemented by the repeated demolition of liberal ‘sophistry’ by upright ‘common sense’ (155-156).
This logic can be seen as applicable with very little modification to THE SEARCHERS. Although Douglas Pye is essentially correct when he writes “It is, in effect, impossible to escape the [Western] genre’s informing white supremacist terms” (Pye 223), the fact remains that John Ford intended the picture to be a rebuttal of the white supremacist reaction to integration and the Civil Rights movement. I mention this point in particular because Grist writes that TAXI DRIVER “does not so much continue the Urban Western cycle as subject it to a disabling generic revision” (157).
Furthermore, the bifurcation seen between the Urban Western and New Hollywood Cinema ethos regarding rejection of authoritarian as opposed to liberal legal institutions is non-existent in THE SEARCHERS. Ethan Edwards rejects the norms of law and order, demonstrably when he furiously rebukes Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton (played by Ward Bond) for tactical failures during the initial search and rescue efforts.
He furthermore eschews what Ford scholars see as traditions of Liberal American society, embodied by a funeral service Ethan halts, a wedding he interrupts, and his maniac rejection of the respect for kinship, the value of human life, and the equality of gender.
Of course the Nixonian accusation that “liberal values” were at fault for the social chaos that gave rise to the New Left was still just a parlor reactionary ideological caveat when THE SEARCHERS was released in 1956. It would not be for another twelve years, following the death of President John F. Kennedy, the 1964 presidential campaign of Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater, and the crystallization of the GOP Southern Strategy that this scapegoating of Liberalism would determine the election of a president. However, it is worth noting that the seeds of this scapegoating included within their coordinates the moral disgust at integration that Goldwater tapped into with his campaign (Henderson 66-67).