‘Taxi Driver’ is one of the most important films of all time. And arguably, one of the best films ever made. It definitely has had an extremely powerful impact on me and remains to be one of my all time favorites. A lot has been said about this film and definitely by brighter minds than me. Since this is a piece on Taxi Driver, I could talk about any of the those things, from the haunting score (by Bernard Hermann) to the insane script (by Paul Schrader). From DeNiro’s beautiful portrayal of a lonely man’s tragedy to the depiction of racism in the most Scorsese way possible (overt but covert).
But since any fan of this masterpiece must have read about these things by now, I want to talk about another thematic element within the film which sort of makes the film memorable for me, i.e, I believe Taxi Driver is the greatest war film ever made (My opinion).
To me, as to most civilians, war is a very interesting topic. Clearly, as a species we’re very fond of it. So naturally war has found itself as a major subject in all forms of art, especially cinema. There have been some great war movies like Paths Of Glory, Apocalypse Now, Turtles Can Fly, etc. Taxi Driver, however, stands out because unlike the movies I mentioned above, it takes place as far away from a battlefield as possible. The whole film is shot within New York City and not in a very flattering way.
Now, some things about the film’s war theme are apparent. Most obviously, the protagonist, Travis Bickle, is a Vietnam War Veteran who’s back to the country which he fought to “protect”. In a lot of ways, and I can’t believe I’m about to draw that comparison, Taxi Driver is everything that ‘First Blood: Part One’ hoped to be. Both have protagonists who have returned to their country after serving in the Vietnam war only to find out that the country they fought for is not so great after all. However, the similarities between the films stop there. First Blood goes on to sort of support the purpose of the war while sympathizing with the soldiers who fought in it. Taxi Driver, on the other hand, questions the whole idea of war.
To be clear, from my perspective, A war film doesn’t need to show tanks, a battlefield, gun slinging badasses and uptight army generals. The idea of war is much bigger than that. Taxi Driver looks at war from an individualistic point of view, something that goes against the very principle of having a military in the first place. The loneliness of Travis Bickle is probably the same loneliness he felt while waiting for Charlie (VietCong) in some muddy trench in Vietnam. Except without the bittersweet excitement of being attacked. This was his country. They (Americans) wouldn’t attack him. Or would they? This is the nauseating feeling we see Travis deal with throughout the film which eventually leads to his outburst.
Think of Travis as the representation of the average American soldier and New York City as Vietnam (This is not the only interpretation). Travis doesn’t seem to trust many people in the film. He’s paranoid and buys guns to keep him safe from all the ‘filth’ that roams the streets. He prays that one day “A real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.” Travis doesn’t have anyone to take real orders from out here. This makes him go crazy with paranoia. He doesn’t know who the enemy is and is in search of one. He finds his nemesis in Harvey Keitel’s character of the Pimp ‘Sport’. If Travis is representing the confused, paranoid and mentally fucked up American population, then Sport is the representation of the VietCong or Communism which is trying to trap the young and innocent pre-adolescent prostitute, Iris, who represents the naive American population.
To Travis’s bored mind, these are almost like action figures where he decides what is moral and what is not, much like the foreign policy of the country he proudly represented.
All bets are off once Travis realizes what his motives are. Donning the green, marines jacket and a Mohawk, he now knows what he needs to do. Travis now sees through the hypocrisies of politics and the system. He finally has orders, which he gave himself. He has started to realize, much like a real soldier, that he needs to stop asking questions about life and his own existence, and start pulling the trigger.
And so he does. Travis fails at assassinating Palentine (The Presidential Candidate) and realizes that this enemy is not going to be defeated. Even though Palentine’s political affiliations are never revealed in the film, he does appear like a genuine candidate who’s trying to help the people. In fact, there is a scene where Travis acts like his fanboy. Maybe it’s the backlash of Travis’s anger of being dumped by Betsy, a campaign worker for Palentine, however, the more popular theory is that Palentine’s campaign office is clearly liberal since he has a lot of Black people working for him. And since Travis is clearly a racist and right wing character, the assassination attempt makes sense from his character’s perspective (Also, there is a parallel to a real life assassination but I’m not going to get into that).
He turns towards the rest of his plan. He is successful in rescuing Iris from ‘Sport’. He has done his part.
However, the best is yet to come. Towards the end of the scene in the brothel, it seems as if Travis is about to die. But he doesn’t. Instead he survives and is hailed as a hero. We realize here that Scorsese and Schrader have practically shown the flaw in America. The media. The same man who was probably being declared a madman or a psychopath because of trying to kill one politician, was being hailed as a hero for killing several people. This showed the vast polarity in the minds of the people when it comes to morality, much like two forces fighting each other in a real war.
The film ends with Travis receiving a letter from Iris’s parents, thanking him for rescuing their daughter as he goes about his daily business. The very last shot of the film is that of Travis looking into the rear view mirror with an aggressive expression, showing that there is more to come from the hateful society America has become.
P.S – This piece is my opinion and interpretation. You do not have to agree with it. Also, I’m only looking at one aspect of the film and not even getting into the racism the film shows. I might write a piece on that later.