It’s easy to read Taxi Driver as a “coming home” narrative. Viewed through this lens, Travis Bickle’s enigmatic actions and ambiguous motives shine with stunning clarity: unable to readjust to civilian life after a traumatic tour of duty in the jungles of Vietnam, he lashes out at the “decadent” society he fought so hard to protect. “A man becomes his job,” Wizard observes. In the Marines, Travis’ job was violence; when the war ends, he carries the violence back home.
“God’s lonely man” has plenty of company. In the wake of Vietnam, the “wounded veteran” became a popular cinematic archetype—a symbol of postwar disillusionment, the deep scars on the American psyche. Television had brought the bloodshed into the living room, stripped away the glory and honor of warfare. The displaced soldier represented no less than a country’s loss of innocence.
Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader himself tackled this theme more directly just one year later, in Rolling Thunder (co-written by Heywood Gould, directed by John Flynn). Near the film’s blood-drenched climax, recently freed P.O.W. Charles Rane, seeking vengeance on the gang that mercilessly murdered his wife and child, visits his friend and former cellmate, Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones in a career-making performance). Vohden’s family gushes about his heroism, blind to his stoic expression, his emotional distance. After a tense meal, Rane informs his comrade that he’s “found the men who killed [his] son.” Without a single question, or even a moment of doubt, Vohden replies, “Let me just get my gear.” He has no personal stake in Rane’s vendetta—it simply provides the sense of purpose his civilian life lacks.
John Rambo follows the model even more closely. In First Blood, after being arrested for vagrancy in a small mountain town and abused by the tyrannical sheriff, Rambo’s repressed emotions—the trauma of his imprisonment and torture, of seeing his friends blown to pieces—boil to the surface. From there, his training takes over—“In Vietnam, his job was […] to kill, period,” as Colonel Trautman so delicately puts it. While most viewers remember Rambo for his frenzied howls and bullet-spraying rampages (an image largely shaped by the sequels), I feel his words, specifically the monologue delivered at First Blood’s emotional peak (quite possibly the quintessential wounded vet speech), really define him as a character:
Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me, I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn’t let us win! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting […] For me civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there’s nothing!
Francis Ford Coppola pushed the archetype to its logical extreme in Apocalypse Now, crafting a veteran so deeply wounded that he’s unable to return home at all. “When I was home after my first tour, it was worse,” narrates Martin Sheen’s Capt. Benjamin L. Willard in the film’s opening moments.
I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said yes to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.
And so he does return to the jungle—that heart of darkness—the one place in the world where he feels truly useful, truly alive.
But counting Travis Bickle among these men is almost too easy. He certainly carries the literal scars of battle, and—much like Rambo and Willard—appears to seek some kind of catharsis. Do his violent actions reflect a desire to finish the fight on U.S. soil, as in First Blood? Maybe partially, but I find Travis’ behavior too complex and contradictory to reduce his motivations to such simple terms. His racism, his compulsive lying, his apparent ignorance of how intimate relationships work—all suggest problems that predate the war. His military service, then, provides another piece of the intricate puzzle that is Travis’ characterization, rather than completely defining it. He transcends the archetype, allowing Taxi Driver to function as a character study, rather than a social commentary—making it a more compelling, memorable, and (dare I say it?) respectful film.
[Originally written March 18, 2012.]