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Taxi Driver: In The Shadow of The Searchers?

In one of his more in-depth analyses of Taxi Driver, Roger Ebert writes,

It is a widely known item of cinematic lore that Paul Schrader’s screenplay […] was inspired by The Searchers, John Ford’s 1956 film. In both films, the heroes grow obsessed with ‘rescuing’ women who may not, in fact, want to be rescued […] The buried message of both films is that an alienated man, unable to establish normal relationships, becomes a loner and wanderer, and assigns himself to rescue an innocent young girl from a life that offends his prejudices.

The parallels Ebert draws are more or less accurate, and both Scorsese and Schrader cite the legendary Ford/Wayne collaboration as a career-spanning influence (Scorsese even blatantly name drops it in Who’s That Knocking at My Door, his directorial debut). Still, I feel Ebert somewhat irresponsibly overestimates these relatively superficial similarities—possibly inspiring one TVTropes editor to describe Taxi Driver as “The Searchers in the 1970s.”

Scorsese and Schrader certainly pay homage to Ford’s masterpiece, but the differences between the two revered films are more numerous and more significant than any resemblances. Ford’s camera emphasizes the smothering solitude of the Old West—how the sprawling frontier dwarfs human figures; Scorsese, on the other hand, keeps the focus tight on Travis, creating a chillingly intimate portrait of urban isolation—a man lost in a sea of faces. The Searchers follows a fairly typical redemption narrative, hinging on the gradual thaw of Ethan’s relationship with traveling companion Martin Pawley (remember, Ethan sets out with the intention of “mercifully” murdering Debbie); Taxi Driver also explores the theme of redemption, but Travis embarks on his quest alone, and end up more or less where he began—one spark away from a violent explosion. And, of course, Scorsese and Schrader wisely refrain from subjecting their audience to a character as needlessly quirky as old Mose Harper. The shared elements—a loner, a girl in peril, the “cowboy versus Indian” imagery (Travis in his boots, Sport in his Native American-inspired ensemble)—look shallow in comparison.

The handful of legitimate references aren’t meant to recreate The Searchers for a new generation, but rather to evoke it—to appeal to the viewers’ familiarity with the tropes of the classic Westerns, thereby easing the transition into Schrader’s dark, unconventional story (George Lucas applied a similar technique to Star Wars the very next year, utilizing features of the Western, jidai-geki, and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces to construct a more comfortable galaxy far, far away). That hardly constitutes a remake. Scorsese also borrowed a few cinematic techniques popularized by the French New Wave; does that make Taxi DriverBreathless in the 1970s?” 

[Originally written March 11, 2012.]

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