Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver deserves its status as a masterpiece of cinema. Its celebrated script was penned by Paul Schrader, who himself was quite like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle character; alienated, on edge, an existential loner. Schrader wasn’t so much writing about his own experiences however, as he was about would-be political assassin Arthur Bremer.
Bremer was the man who shot George Wallace in May of 1972, during Wallace’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Southern segregationist candidate was left paralysed from the waist down. It sent shockwaves across a nation that was slowly moving away from a decade darkened by politically-motivated killings.
Here’s what TIME magazine reported about the shooting:
Bremer’s life closely mirrored that of Bickle’s in Taxi Driver. Bremer didn’t have a girlfriend until he was 21, she was 16. His intense behaviour caused her to break up with him and he was devastated. Bremer contemplated suicide after an attempt to get her attention by shaving his head failed. Bremer began stalking presidential candidate Richard Nixon. He followed him to several demonstrations with a mind to kill him. However, hippie demonstrations drew extra security at Nixon’s campaigns and Bremer switched his attentions to Wallace.
“About May 9 a Wallace campaign worker, Mrs. Janet Petrone, says that Bremer visited Wallace headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., and offered to work on the campaign. On May 13, in Kalamazoo, Mich., he reportedly parked his car across the street from an armory where Wallace was scheduled to speak and sat there for more than ten hours. Responding to a “suspicious-subject” call, police questioned Bremer, who satisfied them with the explanation that he was there early to get a good seat at the rally.
“On May 15 Bremer turned up in Wheaton, Md., for a noon appearance by Wallace at a shopping-center rally. Mrs. Petrone says that when she saw Bremer, who was wearing a red, white and blue striped shirt and a WALLACE IN ’72 button, he said: “Hi, babes. How’s it going?” At 2:15 p.m., William Taaffe, a reporter for the Washington Evening Star, saw Bremer at the Laurel rally 16 miles away. At 3:58 p.m. Wallace was gunned down with a .38-cal. revolver belonging to Arthur Bremer.
“…Searches of Bremer’s effects showed the mystery of the man. In his messy apartment were Wallace campaign buttons, a Confederate flag, boxes of shells, old high school themes, pornographic magazines, Black Panther literature, tax forms giving his 1971 income as $ 1,611, a booklet entitled 101 Things To Do in Jail and various newspaper clippings, including one on the difficulty of providing security for campaigning politicians. In notebooks and on scraps of paper there were such notations as “My country tiz of thee, sweet land of bigotry” and “Happiness is hearing George Wallace sing the national anthem, or having him arrested for a hit-and-run accident.” In one muddled note entitled “A Critique of My Life,” Bremer wrote: “TV radio the big books more books and more masturbation sex fantasy daydreams of the father reading newspapers looking at my parents.”
The following is a chilling account from Bremer’s journal, An Assassin’s Diary, which made a small splash when it was released in 1973.
“Now I start my diary of my personal plot to kill by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace. …How will the news associations describe me? An unemployed painter? An unemployed part-time busboy? A colledge (still can’t spell it) drop-out? … I have it. “An unemployed malcontent who fancys himself a writer.” — Arthur Bremer’s diary, March/early April 1972
Bremer pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury took 95 minutes to find him sane and guilty. The judge invited Bremer to make a statement and he quoted the prosecutor saying: “he’d like society to be protected from someone like me. Looking back on my life, I would have liked it if society had protected me from myself. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
“I can’t hit any thing at a 50 foot target range. I remember firing over 100 bullets, 99 missed the paper, some of those hit the cieling & downed plaster & dust, & one 10 ring hit. Still can’t believe it. How does anybody hit with one of those things? … I have a date with history. But I can’t hit a thing more than 10 feet away.” — diary March/early April 1972
Although Scorsese and Schrader have both cited the Bremer case as an influence on Taxi Driver, but only partially. Scorsese’s film is a monumentally important film on the infernal darkness of the human mind and New York City. De Niro’s Bickle is haunte,d obsessed and disgusted by the vermin that swarm the streets of NYC. 40 years later, it’s still as striking and unnerving as it was back in 1976. Scorsese hasn’t made a more important film since and he certainly won’t ever again.