12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957)

The Vietnam War And Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)

"(After Vietnam and Watergate) You can't make a film anymore where the whole country seems to make sense"
- Martin Scorsese, 1976


When talking about the influences of film noir, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, (Scorsese, 1967) Paul Schrader (1972: 232) states that the movement ‘suited America’s post-war mood.’ Thus, if film noir can be seen as a response to World War Two, a neo noir such as Taxi Driver can be seen in the same light as a reaction to the Vietnam War. The character of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) exhibits the characteristics that Schrader (2003: 232) outlines in his description of the representation of servicemen who ‘turned their antagonism with a new viciousness towards American society.’ Travis Bickle is a character who reflects the growing discontent for such a society, in voice over he denounces the state of the streets of New York saying that “someday a real rain will wash all this scum of the streets” which demonstrates how it is a film not only about Vietnam itself, but the various problems that a post war America had to deal with. In the years leading up to the release of Taxi Driver, ‘youth surveys registered exceptionally high levels of discontent with American society’ (Kramer, 2005: 77). Reasons that accounted for these views is what Taxi Driver deals with through its representation of urban poverty and racism, as well as the deteriorating public faith in authority; such a representation is achieved through Taxi Driver’s first person perspective of one returning Vietnam War marine.

There are technical elements of Taxi Driver that point towards the possibility that Travis is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of his time in the Vietnam War. At the end of the opening credits Travis’ eyes are framed in an extreme close up with largely red color palette, there obvious connotations of blood as a result. This seems to contradict Travis’ later claim that his license is ‘as clean as his conscience’ when applying for his job, this is because while there is clearly a sense of ambiguity since you only see his eyes, the way he is scanning the streets suggests that Travis is in a state of restlessness and anxiety which is made more obvious when he reveals that he finds it hard to sleep. There are also editing techniques employed which contribute to reveal Travis’ state of mind, the use of jump cuts whilst he is at the shooting range and again during his “listen you screwheads” speech are methods used that ‘underline both the restless tensions of Taxi Driver’s urban milieu and of its unsettled hero’ (Williams, 2006: 158).

Taxi Driver analysis Vietnam

This is further demonstrated with the camerawork to show Travis’ disconnection with the world around him, on two occasions the camera leaves Travis when it could have stayed on him, once when he is walking through a taxi rank and another time when he is on the phone to Betsy after their date. They can both be seen as an example of the view that Taxi Driver is ‘a painstaking analysis of a cabbies mental disintegration’ (Gilbey, 2003: 200), since most of the film is seen through Travis’ perspective it certainly gives the audience a sense that Travis is detached from society as it breaks this orientation that the audience has become familiar with. The latter example can also be seen as a metaphor for Travis’ withdrawal and anti social behavior as he fails to convince Betsy (Sybil Shephard) to forgive him after their date, it is as if his efforts are too pathetic and painful to watch that the camera has to drift away from him. One final example that demonstrates Travis’ mental state is during a scene with his friends at a cafe, as they engage in conversation he appears to get ‘lost’ in thought when he drops a Alka-Seltza tablet into his glass of water and stares at it. This follows him being asked by his friend why he doesn’t carry a gun around with him for protection, perhaps giving him an ‘idea’ which can be seen as a pivotal moment in outlining Travis’ mental disintegration and realization of what he needs to do to demonstrate his strength.

Vietnam effected the sense of masculinity of many men since the war itself was steeped in failure, as Mithers argues ‘the war vanished below the surface of a country that wanted to forget it’ (1986:75). The failure of Vietnam therefore provides a backdrop for Travis’ psychosis and need to prove his masculinity, especially after being rejected by Betsy. It can even be argued that Travis is a metaphor for the war itself; a character that ‘starts and ends without grace’ (Kolker, 2011: 231) which, as Mithers’ view suggests can be also read as a blunt description of the course of the Vietnam War. Consequently, Travis’ purchasing of guns, murder of a convenience store robber and his pursuit of Senator John Palantine (Leonard Harris) and “Sport” (Harvey Keitel) can be seen as a way in which his violence has ‘erupted out of a terrible anxiety about the loss of power and not being on top’ (Taubin, 2007: 72). Furthermore, when Travis is challenging his own reflection he is imagining that someone is threatening this position, he is fulfilling the claim that ‘exaggerated masculine icons have  moments that define their characters’ (Schwartz, 2008: 457) and reflects his insecurity about his own position. The following scene that results in his murder of a shop robber can be seen as one of the culminations of this ‘rehearsal’ in front of the mirror. 

This is a moment that reflect’s Travis’ racism, since the shopkeeper that is being robbed has a shirt on bearing the US flag it seems that the scene in question may be mirroring the state of the Civil Rights movement at the time since both him and Travis are united against an outsider who they see as inferior to them. Taubin (2000: 58) argues that ‘racism plays a part here, just as it did in Vietnam,’ it indeed demonstrates contradiction of the fact that racism was inherent within America despite the fact that black soldiers had fought and died for America when in Vietnam. Travis appears to be fascinated with the black people in the streets around him, he scans those sitting at the table across from him in the cafe with with intent as if he believes they pose a threat to him and points his gun at his television that is showing a black couple dancing. It appears Travis feels this is justified as they are almost always portrayed as a group causing him distress, for example a group of teenagers throw eggs at his cab and a man in the cafe makes a gun gesture towards him as he leaves. This shows why he sees them as villains, just like his enemies in Vietnam who were out to kill him, those who he sees as enemies at home pose a similar menace and only contribute to his paranoia which he feels must be met with force.

The violence in Taxi Driver can thus be seen as the primary force in which Travis attempts to prove his masculinity, Belton (1994: 309) argues that he attempts to play the part of the ‘old fashioned western hero’ which is directly referenced to by Sport who remarks on Travis’ boots - “Come back anytime, Cowboy” (Travis also wears a plaid shirt in some scenes which is reminiscent of a cowboys attire). The scene in which Martin Scorcese’s character is spying on his wife who is having an affair is one such example that portrays the way post Vietnam America was wracked by a crisis of masculinity, his solution for reclaiming this masculinity is to relish in violence and kill both his wife and her boyfriend. His ‘potent mix of racism and machismo appeals to Travis’ own prejudice’ (MacNab, 2004: 113) and is similar to the later sequence where Sport and Iris (Jodie Foster) are dancing while Travis is outside, which is the only scene that is not from his perspective. Like how Martin Scorcese’s character feels that only way to cure his insecurity is to kill those who he hates, Travis’ answer is to kill Sport. The two main females exacerbate these insecurities because they appear to inhibit power and agency, Iris for example is shown to be very streetwise while Betsy is arguably the catalyst for Travis’ downfall. It is both of these characters that are responsible for Travis’ ‘inability to script himself as the hero of his own life story’ (Mortimer, 1997: 30).

Travis can be seen as a character who is projecting his experiences in Vietnam into domestic setting, it has even been argued that he is in fact merely a soldier ‘continuing his campaign on a different front’ (Williams, 2006: 160). It is obvious that Travis has carries with him the skills he accumulated when in Vietnam, his knowledge and ability to handle firearms is demonstrated in the shootout at the end and when he is shown as capable at hand to hand combat judging by his stance when he defends himself against Tom (Albert Brooks) after he confronts Betsy. Bar a few exceptions he wears his military jacket all of the time as if he has just as many enemies within America as he did when in Vietnam, but perhaps the most significant element of his costume is his hair. Before his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Palantine he shaves it into a mowhawk, this was a method adopted by some marines in the Vietnam war on the eve of a dangerous mission, a sight that they were in ‘killer mode’ (Taubin, 2007: 68). Taxi Driver is evidently a story of a man who has never quite escaped the effects of the war that he fought in, to the extent that he feels that the only way to achieve his aims is by absorbing himself into the mentality of a Vietnam marine.

The violent decade that preceded the release of Taxi Driver with the assassination's of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King as well as political events such as the Watergate scandal means that paranoia plays a large role within Travis Bickle’s psyche, with murder often acting as the cure for it. Cook (2007: 116) emphasizes how, ‘as the Nixon administration started to crumble, as our Vietnam war effort became futile and as books came out that criticized the Warren commission were released, Americans lost faith in its institutions like never before’. These events explain for one why Travis leads a relatively lonely life (“Loneliness has followed me my whole life”) which is expressed through his positioning at the end of the table, separate from his colleagues at a cafeteria with whom he regularly meets but rarely takes the initiative in conversation with. In addition to his loneliness he can be seen as a vigilante in his actions to ‘rid the streets of the scum’ because his character ‘projects the national despair with frustrated individuals’ (Tomasulo, 2007: 165), Sport at one point even mistakes Travis for a policeman. This can be a response to the view that the American public felt that authority figures couldn’t be trusted as a result of both Vietnam and Watergate which manifests itself in his attempted murder of Palantine and saving of Iris from the urban poverty in which she lives. Consequently, since ‘government corruption seemed as pervasive in American culture as Coca Cola’ (Gateward, 2007: 95), it explains why Travis feels like he must clean the streets on his own, because no one else will. It also helps to justify his seemingly contradictory actions of wishing to kill a man promising to clean up the New York that Travis has so much hatred for, since he is ultimately a ‘psychopathic monster produced by an indefensible society’(Wood, 1986: 53), a society where its leaders can never be trusted to do what they promise to achieve.

Travis is a character who does initially desire a juxtaposition in his domestic life compared to his experiences in war as since he is a ‘Vietnam veteran who has endured the crisis of war and now longs for a sense of order and security’ (Roth, 2006). Travis does proclaim his need to Betsy that he wants to get organized, but by the middle of the film he appears to grow sick of the normality and repetitiveness of his urban life - “The days move along with regularity...one day indistinguishable from the next”. Haenni (2010: 67) argues that this is a result of the post war world that he lives in: ‘the decline of the city seems to engender the decline of the male hero.’ It is this domestic landscape that appears to not only anger, but also bore Travis more as the film goes on. His apartment is depicted as anything but organized and tidy, consequently he can be seen as unreliable individual both as a character and as a voiceover narrator and thus it is evident that he finds it impossible to lead a normal or mundane life upon returning to America. While he is portrayed as a character that has a great deal of willpower, shown through his labour of gun practice, it appears that violence is the one repetitive element that Travis is able to cope with in his life; he craves the sense adrenaline that he no doubt would have experienced in Vietnam and it unable to function when placed in ‘normal’ situations such as dates. 


Taxi Driver analysis Vietnam scorsese Taxi Driver appears to parody and exemplify the power of the media within America that emerged out of the Vietnam war, its presence was incredibly significant since it was the first major war to be heavily televised. This connection is most obvious after the shootout and how the news treats Travis as a hero, a reaction that real Vietnam veterans didn’t receive, which was meant to act as a ‘criticism of the media’ (Biskind, 1999: 314). The fact that the ‘American news media came to dominate domestic opinion’ (Hallin, 1986: 3) during its coverage of the Vietnam war demonstrates the hegemony that it had over the American public. This power is just as prevalent in post Vietnam, the media is portrayed as something that abuses its overwhelming ability to influence public judgement and ‘leaves little doubt about how cultural icons and myths can be artificially created’(Iannucci, 2005).

Travis’ portrayal is similar to that of alienated newsreader Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in the film Network (Lumet, 1976). Howard is similarly pessimistic of society, shown in his ‘Mad as Hell’ speech - “I don’t have to tell you how bad things are (in America)...there’s no-one anywhere who knows what to do”. Diana, Faye Dunaway's character states that Howard is so popular amongst the public because he is able to articulate the rage that they have - perhaps the same anger and confusion that Travis lives with. Interestingly Network was released in the same year and depicts a ‘hero’ created by the media, yet unlike Travis, Howards’ downfall from his 5 minutes of fame is made explicit when he is murdered. The role of the media seems to be something that reached a peak during the decade that Taxi Driver was set and the one that proceeded it. The television executives in Network care not for the mental state of Howard, they see him as a ratings smash and therefore as simply something that can get them money and exposure. All of this could be attributed to the rise in television ownership and the effectiveness of both investigative journalism (Woodward and Bernstein) and broadcast journalism (Walter Cronkite after the Tet Offensive) which exposed citizens to damning and truthful portrayals of American government. 

Tabin (2007: 14) argues that Taxi Driver is a film ‘rooted in post war trauma’, even when just analyzing the psychology of Travis Bickle, it is clear that Taxi Driver an be read as a response to the Vietnam war because it taps into the individual and subjective journey that just one returning marine had to face. It represents the decay of New York as something that Travis and presumably other veterans hate and it signifies almost a betrayal of the public by the government. Despite fighting in a war Travis feels the need to continue fighting at home against the social problems that have not been solved by authority. It explains why, like how Vietnam divided America even after its end, Taxi Driver lacks any real sense of closure. Travis is repeatedly checking his rearview mirror throughout the film and despite achieving what he wanted by the end, his last glance in his mirror suggests that he will never be satisfied with the state of himself or society. Such a pessimistic view of Travis Bickle, that he will forever and unsuccessfully be attempting to better his own opinion of himself through violence leaves him in a situation similar to the ‘Vietnam quagmire‘ that he can never successfully escape from.



Taxi Driver poster

References:

Belton, J., 1994. American Cinema/American Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Biskind, P., 1999. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Cook, D., 2007. 1974: Movies and Political Trauma. In. Friedman, L., ed. American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations. New Brunswick: Rutgers in Print.

Gateward, F., 2007. 1972: Movies and the Legacies of War and Corruption. In. Friedman, L., ed. American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations. New Brunswick: Rutgers in Print.

Gilbey, R., 2003. It Don’t Worry Me: Nashville, Jaws, Star Wars and Beyond. New York: Faber and Faber.

Haenni, S., 2010. Geographies of Desire: Postsocial Urban Space and Historical Revision in the Films of Martin Scorsese. Journal of Film and Video, 62 (1/2), pp. 67-85.

Hallin, D., 1986. The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press.

Iannucci, M., 2005. Postmodern Antihero: Capitalism and Heroism in Taxi Driver. Bright Lights Film Journal, 47. [Online] Available at: <http://brightlightsfilm.com/47/taxi.php#3end>

Kolker, R., 2011. A Cinema of Loneliness. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kramer, P., 2005. The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars. London: Wallflower Publishing.

Macnab, G., 2005. The Making of Taxi Driver. London: Unanimous Ltd.

Mortimer, B., 1997. Portraits of the Postmodern Person in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and the King of Comedy. Journal of Film and Video, 49 (1/2), pp. 30-38.

Mithers, C., 1986. Missing in Action: Women Warriors in Vietnam. In: Rowe, J., and Berg, R., eds. 1991. The Vietnam War and American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 75-92.

Roth. D., 2006. An Integral Analysis of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. [online] Available at: <http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=H0ITDCxS5QkC&printsec>

Schrader, P., 1972. Notes on Film Noir. In: B. Grant, ed. 2003. The Film Genre Reader III. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 229- 242.

Schwartz, G., 2008. “You Talkin' to Me?”: De Niro's Interrogative Fidelity and Subversion of Masculine Norms. Journal of Popular Culture, 41 (3), pp. 443- 466.

Taubin, A., 2000. Taxi Driver. 3rd ed. London: British Institute Publishing.

Tomasulo, F., 2007. 1976: Movies and Cultural Contradictions. In. Friedman, L., ed. American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations. New Brunswick: Rutgers in Print.
Williams, L., and Hammond, M. eds., 2006. Contemporary American Cinema. New York: McGraw Hill.

Wood, R., 1986. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Colombia University Press.

Comments

  1. This has been immensely useful for my research about Vietnam's portrayal within film, I can't thank you enough!

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment! And thanks for reading - glad it was of use. x

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  2. Thank you very much! I am writing a paper about Travis Bickle's portrayal of Vietnam Veterans and the violence of NYC, and this has been one of the best material that would help me write my paper that I can find. This is almost exactly what I need! Thank you very much once again.

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