Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man and the rest may take a huge chunk of the ticket sales, but in a way they have been following the footsteps of the original masked superhero, thrilling movie going audiences with tales of derring-do.
Zorro may not have been the first hero with a dual identity (that distinction belongs to the Scarlet Pimpernel) but he is without a doubt one of the most enduring characters of popular culture.
Created by author Johnston McCulley, Zorro (meaning fox in Spanish) first made his debut in ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ in 1919. Initially serialised in a pulp magazine, the story became an immediate success with readers all over. The fame of the story eventually reached the ears of Douglas Fairbanks Sr, who being a dashing screen hero himself, decided to make a film based on the character.
The original ‘The Mark of Zorro’ was released in 1920 and was a silent film. No lack of sound could deny viewers the delight of watching the swashbuckling adventures of Zorro. Fairbanks’ hyperactive antics and larger-than-life screen presence took the hero to new heights and started a public enthusiasm for the character. That positive response eventually made Johnston McCulley write several more Zorro stories, leaving a rich canon for future adaptations of the character.
Flash forward to 1940 and the Hollywood movie studio 20th Century Fox, decide to cash in on the public craze for costumed adventures, thanks largely in part to Errol Flynn, who is still regarded as the quintessential swaggering hero. Flynn’s success in setting the box-office ablaze with movies such as ‘Captain Blood’ (1935) and ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938), made major movie studios decide to cash in on the craze. What they needed was a great character and a dashing hero which audiences could revolve around.
Set in the early 19th century, the story of Zorro starts off with his real identity; Don Diego de la Vega who returns from Spain to his family in Spanish controlled California. Diego is the son of Don Alejandro Vega, a wealthy nobleman highly regarded by the ruling class. Upon his return Diego, much to his horror, finds out that his father has been sidelined from power and that the common people of the Spanish colony are being brutally treated by a greedy municipal magistrate named Luis Quintero and his ruthless henchman Captain Pasquale (played wonderfully by Basil Rathbone). Quintero may be the figurehead, but Pasquale is the one doing all the dirty work, such as terrorising the populace and putting back-breaking taxes on the poor, while the rich live the high life.
Diego, upon realising the truth of what is happening decides to set things right. While pretending to be a weak and delicate figure as Don Diego de la Vega, in the form of the masked avenger Zorro, he strikes terror into the hearts of the corrupt ruling elite and becomes a hero to the masses. This dual identity routine, with the unmasked figure being a weakling while his costumed alter ego a courageous hero was, as mentioned above, first used for the Scarlet Pimpernel. But it was Zorro who made it his own and paved the way for the Clark Kent/Superman and Bruce Wayne/Batman dual identity façade.
As the story progresses, Diego de la Vega keeps up with his dual personality act and starts to really stir the pot for the ruling elite. Zorro wants the conniving Luis Quintero to resign and accommodate the return of the just rule of his father Don Alejandro Vega. While all this is happening Diego falls in love with his adversary’s beautiful niece Lolita Quintero and realises that the apple has fallen quite far from the family tree.
‘The Mark of Zorro’ (1940) may not have been the first adaptation of the character, nor would it be the last, but it’s one of the best ever film adaptations of the popular hero. Guy Williams may have been the best Zorro for television in the 1950s Disney series, and Antonio Banderas was very good in the latter day films, but film critics often regard Tyrone Power as probably the best Zorro on the silver screen.
Power plays the role to perfection, perfectly balancing the effeminate Diego de la Vega with the adventurous Zorro. If you didn’t know his real identity beforehand, you could almost believe de la Vega and Zorro were two separate people.
Every good hero needs an equally evil foe and it has to be said that Basil Rathbone does that in spades. He essentially continues the work he had already done in playing the dastardly villain in his earlier roles, which ironically were in the above mentioned Errol Flynn movies.
Basil Rathbone was more famous for playing Sherlock Homes, but he was also an extremely skilled swordsman, regarded by many as the greatest in Hollywood history. His sword fight with Tyrone Power in the movie has been called as one of the best, if not the best, ever committed to film.
One sometimes wonders as to why Errol Flynn never thought of taking this role, because it was tailor made for him. Zorro was probably the one role he never played but should have.
The adventure genre may have been filled with the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series, while the juggernaut of costumed superhero movies continue to rule the world wide box office, but ‘The Mark of Zorro’ is simply a type of film that is not made anymore.
If you want to watch old fashioned heroes fighting the good fight, damsels in distress and bad guys getting their comeuppance, then this is the film for you. For my money its better than many of the CGI infected movies that are released in cinemas these days.
Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at Dawn.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org