The last few years have seen a great deal of racial animus and language, premised on criticism of the Obama presidency, that has been directed at all African people in America. I have found that a lot of this can be traced back to a type of angst that is informed by a better understanding of Martin Scorsese’s film TAXI DRIVER and the film that inspired it, John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS.
Beginning with Francis Ford Coppola, the generation of Scorsese, which included Lucas, Spielberg, Milius, De Palma, Walter Murch, and later Kathleen Kennedy, brought to Hollywood their film school education and began a project which arguably continues to this day. Inspired by the Popular Front era films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and other directors of the period, they set about making big-budget homages to those films from the 1930’s-1950’s, a period they saw as Hollywood’s Golden Age. STAR WARS was essentially a remake of serials featuring Superman, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon. ET was a live action Walt Disney film. THE GODFATHER was a three hour James Cagney gangster film combined with Sir Lawrence Olivier’s wartime Shakespeare tragedies. APOCALYPSE NOW was a World War II Pacific theater of combat film gone to hell. Milus’s other major screenplay, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, was a Robert E. Howard pulp magazine and combined with the Johnny Weissmuller TARZAN pictures. Murch’s forgotten RETURN TO OZ was a remake of the Judy Garland classic. And De Palma’s SCARFACE was a remake of the Howard Hawks picture, with the prohibition of cocaine replacing alcohol and Miami standing in for Chicago. Even Spielberg’s ‘serious’ films, such as SCHINDLER’S LIST or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, are fundamentally indebted to Classical Hollywood films. The cinematography of SCHINDLER is based on the deep focus work of Gregg Toland in CITIZEN KANE, who also worked on many John Ford films that these film makers quote liberally, most notably THE SEARCHERS. PRIVATE RYAN, for all the blood and gore, is a Frank Capra film, complete with a happy ending that either leaves one weeping or retching. Scorsese, who came from NYU as opposed to USC or UCLA, has always injected tributes to European films in his work that the others have not, but a good deal of his work still owes a debt to Classical Hollywood Cinema.
In better grasping these two films, perhaps the dialogue we have with and about Africans in America and their lives can be advanced in a fashion that includes a better understanding of how film informs it.