The Mark of Zorro (1920)
Director: Fred Niblo
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Motte, Robert McKim
Synopsis: A seemingly idiotic fop is really the courageous vigilante Zorro, who seeks to protect the oppressed.
The character of Zorro had only been around for a year, having made his debut in the Johnston McCulley pulp magazine serial The Curse of Capistrano in 1921, when Fred Niblo made this romantic adventure for United Artists. The title character was played by Douglas Fairbanks, one of United Artists’ founders, and marked a change of direction in his screen career which would see him portray a succession of heroic figures such as Robin Hood, D’Artagnan and The Black Pirate throughout the 1920s. He was an unlikely action hero in many ways. With a round, slightly pudgy face he looked more like a hero’s sidekick, but he cut a dashing figure and possessed a level of athleticism that belied his ordinary features and diminutive stature.
He’s Don Diego Vega in The Mark of Zorro, the foppish son of the wealthy Don Alejandra (Sydney De Gray — Blood and Sand, Make Way for Tomorrow), who styles his hair into a curl either side of his forehead and performs parlour tricks with his handkerchief. His father wishes to marry him off to Lolita Pulido (Marguerite De La Motte — The Three Musketeers, The Iron Mask), the daughter of Don Carlos (Charles Hill Mailes — Judith of Bethulia) whose wealth has been decimated by the heartless governor of California (George Periolat — Blood and Sand), but she’s less than impressed by his offer to have a servant come around and sing a song beneath her bedroom window. Much more to her liking is the masked hero known as Zorro, a vigilante dedicated to freeing the people from the oppression of the Governor’s regime, who woos her in her garden mere seconds after the departure of the effete Don Diego. Little does she — or anyone else — know that Zorro and Don Diego are actually one and the same person…
There’s lots of talk of oppression in the Mark of Zorro’s opening titles, and the film wastes no time establishing good guys and bad with the broadest of strokes. Sgt Gonzales (Noah Beery — The Stoker), the boastful but inept sidekick of chief baddie Capitan Juan Ramon (Robert McKim), establishes his bad guy credentials by kicking out a stool from beneath its occupant in a saloon before going on to brag about how swiftly and easily he would put an end to Zorro’s exploits were they to come face to face. Of course, he’s put to the test a lot quicker than expected, and ends up with a Z-shaped rip in the seat of his pants for his troubles.
Gonzales is the first to provide Zorro with an opportunity to demonstrate his athletic prowess while sword-fighting, running circles around his opponent and leaping from floor to table to mantelpiece with loose-limbed ease. Fairbanks really was in incredibly good shape for a man in his late 30s, and it’s remarkable to think that it was at this relatively advanced age that he embarked on his renewed career as a swashbuckling man of action after half-a-decade in light comedies and westerns. In addition to Fairbanks’ essentially light-hearted antics — although passionate about relieving the oppression of the populace, he seems to treat his confrontations with the Governor’s troops as something of a lark — The Mark of Zorro boasts a nice comic touch with a number of unexpectedly comical moments, and the story moves at an unusually fast pace for a silent movie. Given its historical importance on a number of levels, The Mark of Zorro is well worth a look both by those with an interest in the history of movies and fans of swashbuckling heroes.
(Reviewed 12th September 2014)