The Mark of Zorro

Here it is: THE film that defined the swashbuckler. Any film you could possibly think of that involves intricate swordplay and acrobatics can all be traced back to this film, and to its auteur, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Most today know Jr. more so than Sr., but it’s hard to overstate what a mark that Sr. left on film. For one, it was because of this film that United Artists was established as a studio to be reckoned with, a worthy rival for the Big Five. Secondly, while there were stuntmen even back in the early days of cinema, Fairbanks redefined the athletic grace that a leading man and action star was expected to have. In his introduction to the film, no less than Orson Welles cites him as a boyhood hero, stating that he was also a hero for Laurence Olivier.

Here, Fairbanks stars as the masked, Californian folk hero whose duel identity is Don Diego, a stark contrast to his heroic self as Diego is a foppish, geeky, lout. As the film begins we join a group of colonial soldiers where one is regaling the others with the story of how he received his “Z” mark from Zorro after bullying some of the natives. Eventually, Sergeant Pedro Gonzales (Noah Beery, Sr.) shows up, boastfully claiming he could best Zorro. This lightness gives way to the darker undercurrent of the Pulido family where Don Carlos (Charles Hill Mailes) is in danger of losing his land and possessions unless one of his daughters, like Lolita (Marguerite De La Motte) or Dona Catalina (Claire McDowell) can marry rich. Don Diego seems a perfect choice, but the corrupt Captain Juan Ramon (Robert McKim) has chosen Lolita for himself, forcing Diego as Zorro to take on the whole Spanish army if he has any hopes of winning Lolita.

If everyone now knows the story of Zorro it’s largely thanks to this original Fairbanks effort. While the 1941 Tyrone Power version has become better known, and it is a richer, more complete version of the story, this original still holds a lot of charm and fun, largely thanks to its lead. Personally, I became acquainted with the mythology through the 1957 Walt Disney TV series starring Guy Williams. Coming from that version to this, the biggest change was the character of Diego, who was certainly more suave in the original. Other than that, it’s remarkable how little difference there was and just how much the concept seems to breathe out entertainment as if it was impossible to make the character dull. You certainly have all the necessaries in place, including a corrupt government, a brutal army, and an oppressed people who shift between acquiescence and proud indignation.

But any Zorro would sink or swim with its lead, and Fairbanks Sr. is certainly a match for any whom ever took up the role. While Guy Williams and Tyrone Power had the advantage of sound, Fairbanks had the advantage of his tremendous physical gifts. He can effortlessly jump, dive, flip, run, hurdle, and swing from ropes as if he was a cat, monkey, or any other gymnastically inclined animal all combined. In the film’s climactic set-piece his escape from the Spanish army is accompanied by his ability to weave in and out of the sets as if he was a spider spinning a web to catch his pursuers. On the DVD extras there are home movies that Fairbanks shot where he spent time observing decathletes—how they moved and carried themselves—and it certainly seems that Fairbanks was no lightweight in this arena.

The film’s non-action moments largely work well too. The love story is quite sweet, and De La Motte’s Lolita and Fairbanks’ Diego certainly have a charmingly funny relationship, especially the motif of the “have you seen this one?” tricks he performs with his handkerchief, while there’s definite steam between her and Zorro. Wallace Beery may be better known than his older brother, but Noah turns in a boisterous performance as Sergeant Pedro Gonzales, while Mailes is a truly sympathetic Don Carlos and Robert McKim an appropriately villainous Juan Ramon. The film seems to be at its best when it can get most of its principles together, but the more that’s on screen, the more the film wears its heart on its sleeve.

Director Fred Niblo is one of the forgotten godfathers of the cinema. Most today would remember him for Ben-Hur, or perhaps for being one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. As a director, Niblo was mostly known for getting out of the way of his principle actors, and such a style could never have been more suited to a star than Fairbanks, who also produced the film, supplying it with lavish sets that still feel authentic. Niblo also wasn’t a director afraid of pushing the sexual boundaries of the time, especially in his early films (like the simply titled “Sex”), and Mark certainly contains much of that sensuousness between Lolita and Zorro, though it takes on a more dangerous character in Juan Ramon.

But, all of this talk and I’ve really yet to mention the swashbuckling itself. Perhaps because even though this is the archetypal swashbuckler, most of its charm and substance lies elsewhere. That’s not to say that the swordplay is dull, but even in the more extended examples it quickly becomes obvious that what’s really on display here is the talents of Fairbanks. There’s never any real drama in the sword fights because we never once believe Zorro is in danger. No, as it should be, Fairbanks is a step ahead of everyone. As he tells Lolita in an off-hand remark “Don’t worry. Their swords are as slow as their wit.” Ultimately, perhaps the greatest thing about The Mark of Zorro is that its treasures lie in something that’s completely absent in modern Hollywood, and that’s the supreme physical talents of those involved. Yes, we had the likes of Jackie Chan et al. for a time, but even they don’t quite seem to match up to the purity and grace of what Fairbanks accomplished here.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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