The Mark of Zorro (1920) [50 Films Older Than Me #17]

Over six months ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #17. So, that’s 17 movies out of 50 in somewhat over 50% of the year, which just goes to show how far behind I am with all this.

Spoilers ahead.  

The Mark of Zorro

Directed by Fred Niblo

Release Year:  1920 (50 years before I was born).

What it is about:  The oppressed people of Spanish-controlled California are protected by the masked adventurer known only as Zorro (The “Fox”), an expert swordsman and rider who defends the weak and helpless with a strong sense of swashbuckling fun. He is reality Don Diego Vega, the son of rich nobleman, who passes himself off as bored and careless fop. Assisted by his mute servant Bernardo, Zorro fights against the corrupt Governor Alvarado, the lecherous Captain Juan Ramon and the brutish Sergeant Pedro Gonzalez. At the same time, he romances the beautiful Lolita Pulido, who is repulsed by Diego but entranced by Zorro.

Starring Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro, Marguerite De La Motte as Lolita, Robert McKim as Ramon, and Noah Beery as Gonzalez. Charles Hill Mailes and Claire McDowell play Lolita’s parents, and Sydney De Gray is Diego’s father. George Periolat is the governor, and Tote Du Crow is Bernardo. Noah Beery jr. (later the co-star of The Rockford Files) plays a boy. According to the internet, Milton Berle appears uncredited as a boy, somewhere in the movie.

The movie is written by star Douglas Fairbanks (credited under a pseudonym) and Eugene MIller, based on the book The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley–this first ever Zorro story was published only a year before the movie was made).

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I knew, roughly, the story of Zorro prior to watching this movie, but none of the specifics of what actually goes on here.

Reality: Maybe more than any other genre and format of film that I have been exploring in this series, the whole area of silent drama is a bit of a hard one for me to get into. Without the cushion of visual gags from the likes of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, I find the slow (and often wordy) introduction to such stories a bit of a challenge to connect with. This was the case with The Mark of Zorro, even though it does start with a bit of poetic text: “Oppression, by it’s very nature, creates the power that crushes it. A champion arises–a champion of the oppressed–whether it be a Cromwell or someone unrecorded, he will be there. He is born.”

After this heady introduction, it’s a full 8 minutes before we are introduced the foppish Don Diego Vega, played by Douglas Fairbanks, and another 8 minutes before he shows up in costume as Zorro. Before that, there’s a lot of talk about Zorro and a lot of talk about oppression, but very little sign of either.

And when Zorro does appear, it’s just to humiliate one arrogant soldier–the scene is fine, but not spectacular–and then he’s gone again and we’re back to gradually developing the plot and characters.

Eventually, though, things kick in and we get to a bunch of swashbuckling fun as Zorro not only outwits his enemies, but also inspires the local caballeros (or gentlemen, a word I only know because of this film from earlier in this series) to revolution. Douglas Fairbanks shows off great athleticism with both his swordsmanship and horsemanship, and it’s good fun watching him hop over and furniture and enemies alike in his battle for freedom. He fights with a satisfied grin on his face, taunting his enemies as he defeats them–one can understand how utterly infuriating Zorro must be to the Spanish soldiers.

Fairbanks also does a great job making Don Diego Vega into an unbelievably unimpressive wet blanket of a man (as Lolita says of him at one point, “He isn’t a man–he’s a fish!”).

In contrast, Zorro is a recklessly charming lover who sweeps Lolita off her feet. Indeed, I don’t think any actor has ever matched Fairbanks in the degree of distinction he brought to the two sides of the hero’s double identity until Christopher Reeve came along nearly six decades later. The idea that Diego could be Zorro is unthinkable, which makes the scene at the end where Diego drops the pretense and reveals his abilities in a climactic fight with Captain Ramon very satisfying to watch.

The Mark of Zorro is not a deep movie, but it is an enjoyable one. There are not a lot of nuances to the characters and their relationships, or depth to the political implications to what the movie is depicting, but there is (eventually) a lot of adventure and fun.

The cast is good and the action is well-staged, though it has been outpaced many times in later productions.

Much has been said of the connection between Batman and Zorro, and this movie in particular. In some versions of Batman, it’s this very film that the Wayne’s were watching shortly before Bruce’s parents were gunned down by a mugger (although others would suggest it’s more the 1940 version). And like Batman, Zorro has a secret identity, a servant-confidante, a hidden cave, and a black mode of transportation. Indeed, probably the main thing Batman has that Zorro doesn’t is a defining personal tragedy–indeed, Zorro always goes into battle with a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye that make it clear he loves what he does and is legitimately enjoying himself as he’s facing down his foes. And that lets us enjoy it right there with him.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? After a slow start, I enjoyed the movie a great deal and feel a bit inspired to seek out the 1940 remake with Tyrone Power to see how the classic sound era handled the material.

See here for the Master List.

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