The Mark Of Zorro – Rouben Mamoulian
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.