Grist writes throughout about a “complicit identification that the text encourages with Travis” through a series of expressionist devices (Grist 162) that makes the audience share his perspective on events in the plot.
This commences with the film’s first shot: a yellow Checker cab, filmed from a low-angle and in slow-motion, moves toward and past the camera, leaving the title credit in its wake…[that] effectively defamiliarizes the familiar [to use a concept developed by Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky]… The opening shot of TAXI DRIVER presents an affective, highly particularized vision that immediately draws us within the film’s stylized point of view (163).
Can this statement be used, with some modification, to describe the opening of THE SEARCHERS? I think that there are some obvious similarities that have been noted by other critics, including how the opening camera moves impact perspective.
This famous opening scene is worth our attention in discussing Martha’s crucial role in THE SEARCHERS. Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington have noted that the camera movement is quite rare in Ford… Ford chose to align the camera and the audience’s optical point of view with Martha and with the home, not Ethan Edwards. Rather than align his camera with the subjectivity of Ethan and make Martha and the house the object of his look, Ethan remains the object of Martha’s and our own curious look. He is stranger, the question mark, an uncertainty literalized through the one one word query, “Ethan?” that Aaron Edward[s] hesitatingly asks of Martha as he steps up beside her to peer across the desert expanse (Studlar 180).
In a way the openings of both films bear a great deal of similarity and yet they also have a divergence. It is worth mentioning here that “neither stylistically ‘sparse’ nor denying of emotive apprehension, the [opening] sequence [of TAXI DRIVER] is manifestly disregarding of transcendental style” (Grist 164), meaning that the comparison is that much more apt in that TAXI DRIVER is not, at least at this point, intended to be as ontologically different from a Classical Hollywood Cinema picture as an Ozu picture would be.
The scene shortly after the film’s opening that features the introduction of Martin Pawley and Ethan’s anti-social dismissal of him as a ‘half-breed’ is intriguing for a few reasons. It cements that the Ethan Edwards character is a repulsive and profoundly discriminatory, antagonizing racist towards a character who enters the picture in a fashion that would make him seem wholesome and genuine. The fact Martin rides up to the house bareback and dismounts quickly into the doorway makes him seem like a heroic cowboy who could have been played by John Wayne two decades earlier. With a similar sort of introductory sequence involving Travis, we read:
Early in the film we see Travis in his room, writing in his diary. His voice-over speaks what he writes, a description of his daily routine…Travis’s strident, illiberal comments, so the sequence, with its expressionist colour and use of point of view and voice-over, heightens our identification with Travis (Grist 164).
The sequence Grist is describing is a highly personalized montage of Travis writing in his journal and scenes he witnesses while driving his cab. In this sense, there is almost no sort of similarity between the introduction of Martin and the exhibition of Travis’s angst. Yet there is something that is quite similar, how the words of both Ethan and Travis “heightens identification”. Even though John Wayne was playing an anti-hero here, it was still 1956 and he was still John Wayne.
When THE SEARCHERS appeared in 1956, it was advertised as a “John Wayne” western in theatrical trailers, print ads, and the contemporaneous half hour, promotional television show about its making. Wayne’s career and star status were then at their peak; he was seven years into the remarkable twenty-six-year period during which, with one exception, he appeared in distributors’ listings of the ten most popular film stars… His star image involved a particular kind of postwar American masculinity, one defined by the challenges of the World War II military, still fresh in popular memory, as well as by the mythic status of the frontier American West (Luhr 75).
Even if today’s audiences do not necessarily by default identify automatically with John Wayne, the original audience of this film in 1956 did. Couching this in a linguistic vocabulary, the sign ‘John Wayne’ was a signifier for Euro-American male heteronormativity that all men were at least being told was the gold standard, if not striving to intentionally. Indeed, to not aspire to be like John Wayne at that time in America was considered an aberration. To illustrate this point, one must only look to the memoirs and accounts of adolescence written by queer male Baby Boomers. Whether homosexual, bisexual, or gender-variant, almost all of these writers at some point or another refer in some form or another to John Wayne. This in turn means that the identification causes us to “share both his perceptual and ideological space” (Grist 164).