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Who Is the Protagonist of “Taxi Driver” Based On, and How Does the Film Make Us Sympathize With Him?

Although it’s difficult to accept, we all know people like Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) in Taxi Driver (1976) exist in the world. Taxi Driver serves as an extended close-up of the face of a man being driven mad by his worldview. The film tells its story from Travis’s perspective, breaking away only on a handful of occasions. By keeping the viewer attached to Travis in such an intimate way, the film forces us to see everything through his eyes. This not only makes the reality of his madness more believable but also leaves us struggling to understand Travis any better than he understands himself, which isn’t much at all.

Director Martin Scorsese has cited several major inspirations for Bickle’s character. The more well-known of them is Arthur Herman Bremer, a 21 year-old who attempted to assassinate Alabama governor George Wallace in 1972. Another is the character Narasingh (Soumitra Chatterjee) from the 1962 Bengali film Abhijan, a proud and hot-tempered taxi driver who served as a prototype for Bickle. Scorsese has voiced how much influence Abhijan’s director, the late Satyajit Ray, has had on his own work. In that film, Narasingh is an immoral and deplorable character who gets involved with drug running and human trafficking. A young prostitute is the only one who sees him as someone useful. Additionally, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) is a foundation of Bickle, with the film providing a template for Taxi Driver’s screenplay at large.

Arthur Bremer’s plan involved shouting “A penny for your thoughts!” during the assassination of Wallace, a reference to John Wilkes Booth’s reported delivery of “Sic semper tyrannis” when he shot Abraham Lincoln. Like Bickle, Bremer stood in a congregation while Wallace gave a campaign speech, fully intending to assassinate the man when the speech concluded. Also like Bickle, he wasn’t doing it for political reasons. He had no interest in Wallace’s beliefs or policies. He was just a sad and lonely man trying to make a statement.

Absolute Crime says, “Wallace would see Bremer dressed from head to toe in patriotic red, white and blue with a great big WALLACE IN ’72 button pinned right on his chest. He wouldn’t be able to resist a photo op with such a big fan. Wallace would let him in close, and when he did, Arthur would stick out his hand and say, ‘A penny for your thoughts.’ And then, while Wallace mused over his answer, he would reach out to shake Arthur’s hand and find that there was a gun in it. He would look back up into Arthur’s smiling face with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. It was going to be such a powerful moment, looking into the eyes of a man who knows you control whether he lives or dies. But he would only savor it for the briefest of instants. Then he would calmly squeeze the trigger and fire a single shot straight into the governor’s heart. A moment later, the Secret Service and the dozens of cops that were watching over the area would undoubtedly open fire on him, sending him out in a hail of bullets and a blaze of glory. It was going to be beautiful.”

Bremer did shoot Wallace five times, paralyzing him from the waist down, but didn’t kill him. He also forgot to say “a penny for your thoughts.” He served 35 years in jail.

Bickle is a man with strange fascinations. Scorsese makes us privy to these moments when he hangs the camera on random men wearing suits or the dissolving of an Alka Seltzer tablet in a glass of water. We learn something about the psyche of Bickle through these mundane observations that command his focus. He’s a naturally unlikable man, a racist, and a murderous sociopath, but the film’s intimate perspective into his life and psyche render him somehow, mildly, sympathetic. Perhaps our sympathy stems from pity, pure curiosity or the fact that his abject loneliness is (at least abstractly) relatable.

In Thomas Wolfe’s God’s Lonely Man, the essay from which Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader takes the phrase Bickle uses to describe himself, it’s stated that loneliness is a universal theme in the life of every human being. Still, individuals tend to describe their own loneliness as something unique. It’s this universal feeling that brings us into Travis’s world in spite of his long list of degenerate qualities. Also, he’s socially awkward in a way that is introduced as charming. When he asks Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) on a date, he smiles like any man and comes across as endearing—until, when he takes her to a porn cinema for said date, we remember the character we’re following and know we’re wrong to have found him decent.

Bickle lives on the fringe of reality, but the film positions us right there with him. It tests our convictions and poses moral questions as we stand beside an example of the path we’re not supposed to take. As Bickle looks at his reflection in the mirror, he sees his inner self, and sharing his perspective forces us to see our reflections in him. He’s a morally repulsive person, but in his idea of the world he’s the protagonist of his (and our) story.