Geoffrey Ritter Scopophilia contributor
The scene itself is a staple, an inimitable convention. Don Diego de la Vega, the affected, effeminate playboy, bored to suffocation with talk of politics and rebellion, of swordfights and banditos, pulls from his pocket a silk handkerchief. Silent, embarrassed apprehension rises from the other guests at the table as Diego waves the cloth, which seems to weigh many times its real mass in his weak, pale fingers.
It’s over as quickly as it begins. Diego, his eyelids heavy with wine and fatigue, apathetically brushes the handkerchief through the air in breezy figure-eights, sifting it around with convoluted drama. Suddenly, he stops with an animal’s precision and fixes his eyes on the senorita across the table. She glances back at him and then to the floor, embarrassed, humiliated, ready to sink into the dirt at the mere thought of this ridiculous dandy to whom she soon will be betrothed.
With a quick flick of his wrist, Diego reveals his trick, pulling a lone flower from the folds of the silk. For a moment, her eyes glimmer and her heart glows, but only for a moment. Just as quickly, he brushes sweat from his brow and returns exhausted to his seat.
The scene is a farce to everyone else seated at the table, and it passes as quickly as it started, moving awkwardly but briskly back to the politics of the day, the chatter of California’s aristocratic class. To most seated at the table, the episode is indicative of the de la Vega’s shame, a family of fortune and honor reduced by an heir submerged in apathy and foppishness. Diego, however, as he inevitably excuses himself to return wearily to siesta, has had the last laugh in this scene each and every time. He is no fop. He is no dandy. And his magic merely is a clever distraction, a one-note show that hides his greatest trick of all.
The scene, in some form or another, has been done on film countless times in the past 85 years. With flowers and fans, salt and pepper, the lazy, dreamy Diego de la Vega has pulled all manner of items from thin air, using one secret identity to shield another: El Zorro, the Fox, the Curse of Capistrano, the Robin Hood of Old California.
Although the masked rider first appeared in a 1919 pulp magazine story by former police reporter Johnston McCulley, it was these cinematic exploits, at once bold, daring, sweeping and romantic, that turned the character of Zorro into a film icon adopted by movie makers all around the world.
It is impossible to count the number of times Zorro has been put on film. Regardless of the list that is compiled, a handful of films fall through the cracks, forgotten films from Central America or lost spaghetti Westerns from an Italy enamored with the masked rider. Regardless of this, though, only a few characters from the movies — Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, to name the only two guaranteed of the distinction — have had a broader impact on Zorro around the world, and perhaps no other character has been used so broadly and across so many genre lines.
There has been silent Zorro. Golden age Zorro. Animated Zorro, pornographic Zorro and homosexual Zorro. In one Italian film, Zorro fights corruption with Samson in a 15th-century feudal society. The guy gets around.
Now, the legendary swordsman returns to screens worldwide this month in The Legend of Zorro
with Antonio Bandera and Catherine Zeta-Jones, following up on the hit film The Mask of Zorro
that was released almost a decade ago. It is the newest chapter in a cinematic legacy that spans the generations, and it is the most recent adventure for a character that with little argument can be classified as cinema’s first action hero.
Before Zorro, there was no masked hero of the sort, and in the decades following his first appearance, he lent elements to everyone from Superman to Spider-Man. Bob Kane, who with Bill Finger created Batman in the 1930s, has repeatedly pointed to how much he drew from Zorro in creating his own timeless character, placing Diego’s lazy, bloodless playboy in Gotham City with a mask, cave and loyal manservant all his own.
For all the following interpretations on the dual identity, however, none has ever matched the extreme popularity of McCulley’s creation. Zorro is a bold, vibrant character, operating in a world at one moment sleepy and contented and at another filled with color, heat and passion. He is striking both visually and narratively, and his motive has never been one of revenge or selfishness.
He is a man on a lark, a joyride, a vigilante who fights injustice and puts on his various guises for the simple boyish fun of it. As celebrated author Isabel Allende puts it in her take on the classic story, published last spring by Harper Collins, Diego is “obsessed with dispensing justice, in part because he has a good heart, but more than anything because he so enjoys dressing up as Zorro and stirring up his cloak-and-dagger adventures.”
That 1919 story, titled The Curse of Capistrano
for mysterious reasons, easily could have been the end. Zorro unmasks himself at the end of the tale, and all the loose ends are tied up in McCulley’s rough but efficient prose. Enter one Douglas Fairbanks.
Perhaps one of the most popular film actors of his day, Fairbanks was attracted to the story, perhaps because he desired a change from the comedies he commonly did, perhaps because of the remarkable physical opportunities the role offered, perhaps both. Either way, the silent film The Mark of Zorro was rushed into production just months after McCulley’s story first saw print, and it opened while the pulp story still was a recent memory. It was an immediate smash.
Beyond that, it was an unprecedented smash. Zorro, the first masked character to make such a popular mark on films, left just as much a mark on the career of Fairbanks. After Zorro, Fairbanks rode a wave of action movies that, like The Mark of Zorro
, gave him an outlet for his playful, engaging and acrobatic stunt work, leading him to make an even-more-polished sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro
, in 1925. The Mark of Zorro
, while perhaps not technically the first action film, laid the groundwork for what action movies would become over the next eight decades.
In addition, it is arguable that Fairbanks, who molded the film to suit his purposes, put his mark on Zorro, providing some refinements to McCulley’s original creation that have become staples of the character. The hat, the cape, the wearisome magic tricks — those were all creations of Fairbanks. When McCulley returned to the character of Zorro in the pulp magazines, eventually writing 64 stories that stretched to the end of the 1950s, his character reflected the innovations that Fairbanks injected into his take on the story, and those same innovations have become the standard, recognizable conventions of the character in the intervening years.
The two films left a deep impression on American culture, and in the 1930s, Zorro became a mainstay of American adventure films. In 1936, Republic Pictures produced the first sound Zorro film, The Bold Caballero
, with Robert Livingstone, an actor whose bread and butter would be Westerns, in the lead role. The film, based on a story idea coined by McCulley, was the first and best-produced film in a surge of Zorro that Republic Pictures unleashed on the public in the next 15 years.
Although The Bold Caballero
was a full-length feature that originally was shot in Technicolor, the rest of Republic’s work with the character was in cliffhanger form, B-movie, 12-chapter serials that often bore little resemblance to the original character. In 1937’s Zorro Rides Again, John Carroll starred as a great-grandson of Zorro planted in what was then the modern West. In the 1944 serial Zorro’s Black Whip
, a female character, played by Linda Stirling, called the Black Whip fought villains in Old-West Idaho; the character or likeness of Zorro is never even mentioned in any of the 12 chapters. Zorro’s Fighting Legion
, produced in 1939 and starring Reed Hadley, stands as the only true adaptation of the character to come out of Republic Pictures’ warehouse of Zorro serials. The film features Don del Oro, a mysterious god-like figure who takes advantage of the Indian population for unknown reasons, causing Zorro and a loyal band of followers to ride out and set things right.
By today’s standards, Zorro’s Fighting Legion bears the same formulaic pacing and convoluted cliffhanger endings as do all of the Zorro serials, but like all the other ones, it primarily is redeemed by the exceptional stunt work of Yakima Cannutt, whose work in Zorro’s Fighting Legion
later would be emulated in sequences from films such as Stagecoach
and Raiders of the Lost Ark
. The Republic serials continued into the 1940s with 1947’s Son of Zorro
(an ambitious genealogist could have a field day — or a headache — tracking all the descendants Zorro has had over the years) and 1949’s Ghost of Zorro
, starring Clayton Moore, who later rose to fame in The Lone Ranger
, but they failed to register with the same intensity as Zorro’s Fighting Legion
For all the exposure the serials gave Zorro, however, it was in 1940, when 20th Century Fox chose to remake The Mark of Zorro
in sweeping, Golden-Age gloss, that the character received his true revival. Inspired by the success of the previous year’s Erroll Flynn vehicle The Adventures of Robin Hood
, Fox hoped to make its own swashbuckling mark on the box office using much of the cast that propelled Robin Hood to blockbuster numbers.
While the role of Zorro eventually went to an up-and-coming actor under contract named Tyrone Power, Fox garnered much of the Robin Hood
cast, including Eugene Pallette in a variation on his Friar Tuck role and Basil Rathbone as the villainous Captain Pasquale. All thoughts of imitation aside, however, Fox’s The Mark of Zorro was a cinematic triumph. Although not instilled with the same focus on action as Fairbanks’s silent version was, The Mark of Zorro
survives as an elegant picture, refining many of the themes brought to life in earlier versions and featuring a stellar supporting cast that included Linda Darnell and Montagu Love. Director Rouben Mamoulian demonstrates a clear knack for framing and composition, and while the movie rightly could be accused for being heavy on dialog, the climactic duel he stages between Power and Rathbone ranks as one of the cinema’s best. The film is a treat, and it is required viewing in the Zorro canon.
Throughout the 1940s, the film was released a handful of times, and aside from the Ghost of Zorro
serial in 1949, it would be the last major American Zorro film until the 1980s. During those early years of hiatus, Zorro’s future as a screen icon seemed for a time to be in jeopardy; imitations of the character fell into vogue with Republic Pictures as a way of utilizing stock footage, and more-modern comic book heroes took the stage Zorro once alone dominated. By the early 1950s, it seemed Zorro might have entered a stage of permanent retirement as movies and a little box called television began to pass him by. Then, out of the night, came a phenomenon no one could have predicted, and it changed the face of Zorro forever.
From a cinematic point of view, this was Zorro’s European vacation. He was gone for a while. Before he left, though, he made one last good friend in America, an entertainer looking to break his empire into television named Walt Disney.
It is impossible to underestimate the impact Disney’s Zorro
, which ran from 1957 to 1959 on ABC. Probably the most expensive show to have appeared on television at that time, Zorro
remains a marvel, produced using the best and brightest resources from which Walt Disney had to draw.
Strong and consistent entirely on its own merits, the show benefited from an excellent cast — Guy Williams in the title role, Henry Calvin as the bumbling Sergeant Garcia, Britt Lomond as the scheming Captain Montasario and Gene Sheldon as the mute-but-not-deaf Bernardo — and a musical score that remains catchy almost half a century later. Drawing its inspiration from the usual conventions of Zorro, the Disney program upped the ante by fleshing out characters that merely had been glossed over in previous versions, and the merchandising bonanza that came out of the show, offering everything from toy swords to wallets to board games, had never been seen at that level before.
Unfortunately, the show, which rightly has survived in the minds of many baby boomers as the quintessential take on the character, was short lived, eventually dying when ABC and Disney ran into a funding crisis. Despite its short life, however, Disney’s Zorro
left a greater mark than perhaps any other incarnation before or since, and when it was exported to televisions all over the world (two minor films were culled together from episodes of the show and shipped around the globe, The Sign of Zorro
and Zorro the Avenger
), it ignited an international renaissance of the character that led to the production of dozens of foreign Zorro films between 1960 and 1980.
Zorro, of course, was not particularly new to foreign audiences; a silent version in Belgium was produced as early as 1926, Mexico toyed with the character repeatedly throughout the 1940s, and other takes on the character showed up in Argentina and Peru It was the Disney version, however, that set into motion the most dense string of Zorro films produced to this day, and the bulk of them came out of Italy, Spain and France.
Taken as a whole, these films — many of which were produced on the cheap, released back to back in the same year — are low-budget and exploitative, and the Zorro they portrayed often veered far away from the formula so recognizable in the United States. To list them all here would be grueling; to find them all on the world market, despite the innovation of the Information Superhighway, is an impossibility to say the least.
What certainly can be said, however, is that some true gems exist in the line of foreign-produced Zorro films, some different ideas that place the swordsman in far-off locations and imbue him with a more lascivious persona. In 1962’s Zorro Alla Corte di Spagna
(“Zorro at the Court of Spain”), produced in Italy, George Ardisson plays a Zorro with an almost 007-like attraction to carnality; when he reprised the role six years later for El Zorro la Volpe
(“Zorro the Fox”), the sexual subplots were kicked into an even higher gear. Throughout the 1960s and into the next decade, foreign-produced Zorros traveled the world, fought some nice duels and bedded beautiful women at each step of the way, paving the way for an entire subgenre of Zorro cinema: zornography.
In 1972, Belgium rolled out with Les Aventures Galantes de Zorro
, essentially a long pornography loosely tied together with a thin Zorro plot. That same year in the United States, Douglas Frey starred in The Erotic Adventures of Zorro
, a soft-core jaunt that has some terribly funny moments and some truly terrible acting, and before one could say, “Long, swift rapier!” the era of Zorro lampoons had begun. Relegated to more hastily produced foreign films and choppy American television productions in the 1970s and 1980s, Zorro’s only notable American adventure came in the form of George Hamilton’s Zorro, the Gay Blade
in 1980, a truly politically incorrect send-up of homophobia that, despite itself, survives as a funny and endearing film. Hamilton, fresh of his success lampooning Dracula in Love at First Bite
, approached Zorro on two fronts: one, as the son of the original masked man; and two, as his flamboyantly gay brother Bunny Wigglesworth. The film features some genuinely hilarious supporting performances from Ron Leibman and Brenda Vaccaro and a not-so-hilarious one from Lauren Hutton, and for better or worse, it has emerged as one of the most famous, despised and loved Zorro productions ever. But enough about that.
By far the best Zorro production during this time was simply titled Zorro
, produced in 1974 in Italy and France and starring Alain Delon in the lead role. This one is pure magic. Despite its campiness and its odd, recurring theme song by Oliver Onions, it is imbued with a childish sense of fun and an almost mythical quality.
Directed by Duccio Tessari in the mold of the spaghetti Western, Delon’s Zorro
— set this time in a South American province — is gleefully entertaining and even dangerous at times, flirting with a hero who occasionally even comes across as a religious savior in his battles against Colonel Huerta, played with terrifying heartlessness by Stanley Baker. The humor, the foppishness, the bravado — all of it is here. Plus, the 20-minute swordfight that caps the movie, in all of its creativity and brutality, arguably is the best Zorro duel ever put to film. The movie is a landmark among Zorro films, and it is without a doubt one of the finest produced in any country.
But back to the states. Aside from George Hamilton’s unique take on the character and a mid-‘70s television remake of The Mark of Zorro
starring Frank Langella, Zorro spent the 1980s on the small screen, battling for justice in Saturday morning cartoons and a brief revival of the Disney show in 1983 titled Zorro and Son. The only notable series produced in this time starred Canadian actor Duncan Regehr as an updated-but-still-classical Zorro, and the show, launched in 1989, ran for three seasons to overwhelmingly positive reviews. Despite success on the television, however, Zorro had all but disappeared from the silver screen in America, the last serious production having been the Tyrone Power version in 1940. But in the early 1990s, events began to be set in motion to again return the hero to big screen, and this time, they came with a very impressive name attached: Steven Spielberg.
In 1998, The Mask of Zorro
, executive produced by Spielberg and starring Antonio Banderas as an outlaw who inherits the sword from an aging Anthony Hopkins, broke into American theaters with a smash, proving a modest hit in the United States and a big money-maker at the world-wide box office. Directed by Martin Campbell, the film returned Zorro to the screen in grand fashion and using all of Hollywood’s tricks, and the infectious romanticism of the movie is difficult to resist. Also launching the American career of Catherine Zeta-Jones, the film was a success on all levels, and it comes as a surprise that it took more than seven years for a sequel to materialize.
Now, that sequel is making its way to theaters, and a host of other Zorro films are said to be in the works. Zorro Productions, which owns the legal rights to the characters, has hinted at a future adaptation of Isabel Allende’s new origin novel as the third chapter in the current Zorro “trilogy” (although that particular approach seems problematic at best), and Sobini Films currently is involved in a legal wrangle with Sony Pictures over the rights to make Zorro 2110
, a futuristic take on the character reportedly to be based off the original pulp tale, The Curse of Capistrano
One interesting note comes up in that lawsuit, filed this past August: Is the signature costume and image of Zorro, with the hat, the cape and the sword, something that can be copyrighted? An interesting question indeed. Although the legal rights to the character remain with Zorro Productions in California, something about the character himself, spawned from pulpy pages almost a century ago and since put on television, in comics, in literature and in films all around the world, has become culture — without an owner, set firmly in imaginations all around the world.
I am one who claims ownership. From somewhat more youthful days, when a plastic sword and a black bath towel were all that was required in the fight against injustice, Zorro, for better or worse, has become a defining icon of life. It is a legend — yes, a legend, a title not easily assigned to creations of the 20th century — that provokes passion and excitement, romance and courage.
That a simple character, set in an obscure corner of history, can pervade for so long is miraculous; that the world still embraces him on some level is even more so. I, for one, will spend much of November in the front row of the theater. Perhaps even a little of December. And when the final credits roll and the last “Z” has been carved, it will be a wait, but it is inevitable that the masked vigilante will write yet a few more chapters in cinematic history. After all, he’s always had a card or two up his sleeves. And he certainly has a few more tricks in store for future generations.
Allende, Isabel. Zorro
. Harper Collins, 2005.
Curtis, Sandra. Zorro Unmasked
. Hyperion, 1995.