In 1920, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., virtually invented the swashbuckling film with The Mark of Zorro. There were period and costume films before that, and some of them included a perfunctory duel, but they were merely reverent, stiff, and usually very short adaptations of literary classics. None of them had any flair, panache, humor, or acrobatics. Though The Mark of Zorro was Fairbanks' thirtieth film, all his previous movies had been contemporary comedies. The Mark of Zorro is far from being a literary classic; it derives from Johnston McCulley's pulp adventure "The Curse of Capistrano," which appeared in the August 9, 1919, issue of All-Story Weekly. Directed at a brisk pace by Fred Niblo, who later directed the silent Ben-Hur, with Marguerite de la Motte as the heroine and Noah Beery, Sr., as the heavy, it is an immensely entertaining blend of comedy and adventure, with Fairbanks duelling all over the place and bounding about like a trapeze artist. It is perhaps his best film, yet he was so uncertain of it that he followed it with another contemporary comedy, The Nut. The Mark of Zorro, however, was such a huge hit that it changed the course of Fairbanks' career. For the next ten years, he made nothing but costume swashbucklers, such as The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), and The Iron Mask (1929). In 1925, he played both Zorro and his son in Don Q, Son of Zorro. Elaborately produced, these were among the most popular films of the decade. Suddenly, most romantic stars were making swashbucklers—John Barrymore, Ramon Navarro, Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert, Joseph Schildkraut, and even Conrad Nagel.
With The Mark of Zorro, Fairbanks set the model for the swashbuckling hero. Zorro, however, fell into a decline when the character was borrowed for two Republic serials—Zorro Rides Again (1937) and Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939). In these low-budget programmers, the story degenerated into a series of routine Western adventures, with Zorro as a California version, not of d'Artagnan, but of the Lone Ranger—just one more masked man.' Instead of period elegance, wit, and dazzling swordplay, there are merely routine stagecoach holdups, bandits, and head-'em-off-at-the-gulch heroics. One would have expected this sort of treatment to have weakened the image of Zorro except with children cheering at Saturday matinees; but surprisingly, Twentieth Century-Fox resurrected Zorro in a major production of 1940, with the studio's biggest star, Tyrone Power.
Power had his first major role in a period film, Lloyds of London, in 1936; and since then he had cut a handsome figure in other costume films such as, In Old Chicago (1938), Suez (1938), and Marie Antoinette (1938). The Mark of Zorro, however, was his first cape and sword swashbuckler. It became one of his most popular films and perhaps the one for which he is best remembered. Though he was careful to vary them with other roles, Power made a number of superior swashbucklers—The Black Swan (1942), Captain from Castile (1947), Prince of Foxes (1949), and others. Since his chief rival, Errol Flynn, made no cape and sword films between The Sea Hawk (1940) and The Adventures of Don Juan (1949), Power was the preeminent swashbuckler of the 1940's.
The Mark of Zorro was not only Power's first swashbuckler, but in some ways it is also his best. The story opens at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Spain. There Don Diego Vega is the most dashing and skilled student of the Madrid military academy. Known as the "California cockerel," he is the best horseman and swordsman in his class. He has so many duels on his hands that he cannot remember them all. "Santa Maria, it slipped my mind," he says in chagrin when reminded of an appointment on the field of honor. Unfortunately, he cannot keep this engagement, for his father summons him back to California. As a farewell gesture, he hurls his sword into the ceiling of the salle des armes, to hang there as a memento.
Landing in San Pedro, Diego finds the servants sullen and unresponsive until he says that he is the son of the alcalde, whereupon they respond with a cringing alacrity. During.the reunion with his parents, Diego learns that his father has been deposed by a corrupt tyrant, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), who has taken away the power of the old hidalgos and suppressed them with a military force headed by the sneering Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Together, they are bleeding the peasants with exorbitant taxes. Apprised of the situation, Diego instantly forms a plan. To his father's amazed disgust, he languidly disclaims any interest in politics, as a wearisome subject. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Diego has decided to disguise his real actions by posing as an effeminate fop. The finest swordsman and horseman of Madrid secretly transforms himself into Zorro the fox, a masked Robin Hood who gallops about the countryside on his horse Tornado robbing the tax collectors and giving the money to Fray Felipe, the only person to whom he has confided, who returns it to the poor. Whenever he strikes a blow against tyranny, Zorro slashes a "Z" on the furniture, the walls, or the uniforms of Don Luis' guardsmen, both as a calling card and as a warning.
When he calls upon Don Luis as himself, Diego is a frilly, scented popinjay who minces about with a lace handkerchief, a lorgnette, and a snuff box. He pretends to be terrified at the daring deeds of Zorro by declaring, "My blood chills at the very thought." Thus he disarms any possible suspicion that he himself might be the masked marauder. Captain Pasquale, who is perpetually brandishing a sword and making passes in the air at imaginary opponents, feels nothing but scorn for this effete dandy. Don Luis' wife, Inez (Gale Sondergaard), however, finds him fascinating, certainly more handsome, gallant, and sophisticated than her rotund husband. She flirts with Diego seductively, and he pretends to respond in kind.
The Mark of Zorro is superior to most swashbucklers in that it invokes a great deal of humor as Diego alternates between swishing and swashing. The audience relishes being in on a secret that everyone else fails to perceive. Tyrone Power proved himself a skilled hand at drawing-room comedy as well as being a dashing adventurer. Even the love scenes maintain a comic touch. When Don Luis' beautiful and innocent niece Lolita (Linda Darnell) goes to the chapel and begs the Virgin Mary to "Send one to take me from this place. Let him be kind and handsome and brave," Zorro appears disguised as a monk to hide from the soldiers. She finds him sympathetic, and he forgets all about escaping and tells her, in distinctly unclerical tones, that she is "more radiant, more lovely than a morning in June." She tries to see who is hidden beneath the cowl, but he keeps retreating into the shadows. When she detects a rapier beneath his robe, she realizes that she has been conversing with Zorro, who makes a spectacular escape when the soldiers come for him.
To Lolita's dismay, she is betrothed by her uncle to Don Diego. At first, the handsome young man makes a good impression; for when they dance together, he forgets his foppishness and performs with passion. But he instantly relapses into his languid pose. Arriving late at the betrothal dinner, he apologizes that his bath water had been drawn too soon and had become tepid and that there was a further delay over adding the proper scented salts. Captain Pasquale smirks to Inez that he fears Lolita's married life will be as tepid as the bath water. The Captain resents Diego's flirtation with Inez because he has designs on her himself. However, Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love) is furious at his son's declaration that he plans to marry the niece of the hated tyrant. When his mother begs him to follow his father's advice, he responds superciliously, "I had no say in my father's marriage, so why should he in mine?"
This comic masquerade draws to an end when Captain Pasquale discovers that Father Felipe is Zorro's accomplice, disarms him in a brisk bit of swordplay, and imprisons him. Pursued by soldiers, Zorro enters the alcalde's hacienda by a secret passageway and transforms himself back into the foppish Diego. By now, Captain Pasquale has had enough of this butterfly, taunts him with cowardice, and dares him to a duel. To his amazement, Diego accepts. As they prepare to fight, Pasquale slashes through a candle with his rapier, slicing off the top and leaving the bottom intact. Diego makes a pass at another candle and appears to miss. "Hah!" sneers Pasquale. "Hah, hah!" responds Diego, as he lifts off the top of the candle, which he has severed without seeming to touch it. (Rathbone later parodied this scene in The Court Jester with Danny Kaye in 1956.) The duel that follows is one of the finest on film, done authentically without the suicidal leaping about on furniture, fireplaces, and chandeliers by which too many movie heroes leave themselves off balance and off guard. At the climax, Diego runs Pasquale through; the captain falls, knocking down a picture, behind which a Z is carved on the wall. Don Luis, who has witnessed the fight, is terrified; "You handle a sword like a devil from hell," he says. Diego's plan, in fact, has been to frighten the alcalde into resigning and returning to Spain. Doha Inez is his ally in this scheme, for she believes Diego will return with them and become her lover. Just as the plot is about to succeed, soldiers enter through the secret passageway, and Diego is revealed as Zorro.
Part of his foppish masquerade consisted of showing off insipid parlor tricks with cards and handkerchiefs. Now in prison he dupes the jailor into thinking he can transmute a copper coin into gold. Instead, he seizes the man and takes his keys and pistol. At this point, his father and the other hidalgos enter under guard; The alcalde has rounded them up for imprisonment and gloats that he has captured Zorro. Don Alejandro scoffs that it is merely his foolish son. "Have you seen this trick, father," simpers Diego in his last performance, and whips out the pistol from beneath his handkerchief. Overpowering the guards, the hidalgos begin an attack from within the prison, as a horde of peasants try to storm the outside gates. Performing spectacular feats of swordplay, Diego fights his way over the rooftops, leaps upon the guards at the gate, and opens it for the peasants. At the end, justice is served. His fighting days over, Diego announces that he will marry Lolita, who now loves him, raise fat children, and settle down in California. He hurls his sword into the ceiling, this time to hang for good.
The Mark of Zorro was one of the hits of 1940 and remains one of the half dozen most durable and satisfying of all swashbucklers. Children frustrated their parents by slashing "Z's" in the family furniture. Though Bosley Crowther and a few other critics preferred Douglas Fairbanks, who performed more acrobatic stunts than Power, Power was younger (twenty-six to Fairbanks' thirty-seven), handsomer, more plausible, a better swordsman, and a skilled light comedian. Fairbanks' version leaned more heavily upon slapstick humor; the 1940 film is more sophisticated. Crowther objected to "a note of seriousness, as though Mamoulian or some one were sincerely concerned about the poor oppressed peons," but such an objection is supercilious. Even in a romance, there must be some awareness of man's inhumanity to man or the conflict has no foundation, and some genuine sympathy for the downtrodden peasants was by no means amiss in a year when The Grapes of Wrath was filmed.
Rouben Mamoulian,-the distinguished director of such films as Applause (1929) and Golden Boy (1939), directed with a fine flair for action, comedy, and visual effects. Together with the eminent cinematographer Arthur Miller, he reconstructed the look of Spanish California. Alfred Newman contributed one of his most stirring scores. The cast was first-rate, with Basil Rathbone, Eugene Pallette, Montagu Love (all three borrowed from The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938), Gale Sondergaard, and J. Edward Bromberg lending Power able support. In her second year of filmmaking, nineteen-year-old Linda Darnell played the third of her four romantic roles opposite Power. She was decorative and showed the touch of the comic skill which she contributed to her best roles in the late 1940's.
After the 1940 The Mark of Zorro, the story again declined into two more Republic serials, Zorro's Black Whip (1944) and The Ghost of Zorro (1949, starring Clayton Moore, who later became successful as The Lone Ranger on television). In the 1950's, Walt Disney ran a Zorro series on television starring Guy Williams, and later released an edited version as a feature film. Other Zorro films include The Sign of Zorro-(1962, with Errol Flynn's son Sean), Frank Latimore in Shadow of Zorro (1962), the Italian Zorro the Avenger (1963), Pierre Brice in Zorro versus Maciste (1963), George Ardisson in Zorro at the Court of Spain (1963), Gordon Scott in Zorro and the Three Musketeers (1963), a pornographic The Erotic Adventures of Zorro (1972), and Alain Delon in Zorro (1974). Most of these were cheap potboilers that took considerable liberties with the story. A fairly authentic remake was done for television in 1974 on ABC's "Movie of the Week," with Frank Langella as Don Diego and Ricardo Montalban as Captain Pasquale. This version borrowed Alfred Newman's score from the 1940 film and followed that script closely, though with some condensation. Langella was fine as the fop but not very dashing as the masked adventurer. The two memorable versions remain those of 1920 and 1940. At any rate, Zorro has entered modern mythology; his name has become symbolic of the dashing swordsman par excellence