You haven’t seen Zorro until you’ve seen Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as Zorro in the 1920 silent swashbuckling classic The Mark of Zorro.
Antonio Banderas? Please. A poser (if a charismatic one) in Anthony Hopkins’s shadow. Besides, you can’t really be the Zorro unless you’re Don Diego de [la] Vega, and Banderas is playing someone named Alejandro. Hopkins himself is fine as an aging Don Diego, but Fairbanks already did that schtick in the 1925 sequel Don Q, Son of Zorro, and he had the credibility of having actually been the young, vital Zorro. Don’t get me wrong, the 1998 Banderas-Hopkins Mask of Zorro is a fine tribute to the Zorro tradition, but it’s a sequel, not a retelling of the classic Zorro story, and neither star is the definitive Zorro.
What about Guy Williams, from the 1950s Disney TV series? Tyrone Power, from the 1940 Mark of Zorro remake? Fine actors both, and fine Zorros. But Fairbanks, also a fine actor, was something else as well: a born action hero, a natural acrobat and stuntman.
I’m a longtime fan of physical performers from Harold Lloyd to Jackie Chan; I appreciate Errol Flynn, Johnny Weismuller, Harrison Ford, and other swashbuckling types. But Fairbanks was in a class by himself. This is nowhere more evident than in the last reel of The Mark of Zorro, which contains some of the most jaw-dropping stunts I’ve ever seen this side of Jackie Chan, and is possibly the most amazing action set piece I’ve ever seen in a black-and-white movie, and certainly in a silent film.
The 1920 The Mark of Zorro also outdoes later portrayals of Zorro in its depiction of the hero as a champion of faith as well as justice, and of the Catholic milieu of his native California. Fairbanks’s Zorro is well known to his enemies as a defender of priests and natives; as a bombastic sargeant eager to track down the elusive Zorro is told, "Pick on a priest or a native, and — presto! Zorro!" We also see a priest help Zorro elude pursuing troopers, apparently even providing him with a robe to enable him to pass for a friar.
In one striking sequence, a dignified old Franciscan friar, falsely accused of fraud, contemptuously tells the corrupt magistrate, "If I were a supporter of the licentious governor, I would be innocent. I am a robed Franciscan — therefore I am guilty!" The magistrate has the priest flogged for these "treasonous" remarks — an outrage that immediately causes a bystander, well-born but impoverished caballero Don Carlos Pulido (Charles Hill Mailes), to intervene despite the consequences he will surely incur. In a touching scene, we see the priest being carted off to safety, blessing his rescuers with the sign of the cross.
When Zorro hears of the flogging, he is furious. First, he has the magistrate himself flogged in the same manner. Later, turning on a posse of blue-blooded caballeros pursuing him "for sport," he denounces them: "You sit idly sipping wine while the naked back of an unprotesting soldier of Christ is beaten!" This outrage, more than any other, finally turns the tide in Zorro’s favor.
Besides being a crusader for justice and champion of faith, Zorro is also a defender of the virtue and honor of women. When a brutal captain (Robert McKim) tries to "force his attentions" upon the beautiful, spirited Lolita (Marguerite de la Motte), daughter of Don Carlos Pulido, Zorro soundly defeats him — and then forces him to kneel and apologize to the young woman.
The Mark of Zorro establishes the pattern for future caped crusaders with dual identities, notably Superman and Batman, the latter of which in particular was clearly influenced by the legend of Zorro. (The Zorro influence is actually explicitly written into one version of Batman’s origin story, in which it is the Tyrone Power Mark of Zorro that ten-year-old Bruce and his parents have just been to see on the night his parents are murdered.)
Just as Clark Kent hides behind a mild-mannered facade and Bruce Wayne behind a shallow playboy act, Fairbanks plays Don Diego as a chronically fatigued aristocratic milksop who’s quite overwhelmed by any display of vigor or passion, nearly faints at the suggestion of swordplay or violence, and devotes what little energy he has to frivolous drawing-room diversions with his ever-present handkerchief. "I sent him to Spain to study, and his blood turned to water," complains his father, little dreaming what skills his son learned in their native country, or what use he is making of them in California.
But, as Clark Kent later discovers with Lois Lane, this strategically useful pretense has its drawbacks: Beautiful Lolita is attracted to Don Diego’s dashing alter ego, but not to the insipid persona he presents to the world. "He’s not a man — he’s a fish!" she cries out to her parents who view Don Diego pragmatically as a great catch.
Don Diego even has a sort of pre-automotive Batcave hidden beneath his hacienda, a secret subterranean stablehouse for Zorro’s black steed, with a hidden shrub-covered portal to the outside world and a vertical passageway up into the hacienda. Even the grandfather-clock passageway from the house to the hero’s underground lair was copied by Batman!
Where Zorro differs from Batman or Superman is that his crusade is limited in scope. Like Robin Hood, who gladly quit Sherwood Forest when Richard the Lion-Heart returned from the Crusades and deposed his usurping brother John, Zorro’s way of life is an expedient, not a vocation. He opposes an oppressive gubernatorial regime; if and when the licentious governor is removed from power, Zorro is quite ready to toss away his sword and dispense with his secret identity.
The Mark of Zorro was Fairbanks’s first swashbuckling role (previously he had been known as a comedian). Audiences responded enthusiastically to the star’s new persona, which allowed him to flaunt his considerable athleticism to its fullest advantage. Fairbanks’s stunts have lost none of their impact; no subsequent cinematic superhero has ever been half so convincing as his Zorro leaping from rooftop to rooftop, over the heads of his enemies, tumbling in and out windows, soaring over any obstacle in his way, tables, donkeys, pigpens. It’s amazing how far we haven’t come.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.