The Mark of Zorro,
directed by Fred Niblo
(Douglas Fairbanks Pictures, 1920)

Zorro was the first action hero to grace the silver screen. With the recent revival of this character, he is the longest running action hero in movie history, having thrilled audiences for nearly a century. Here is the movie that started it all: The Mark of Zorro, which is based upon the story "The Curse of Capistrano" by Johnston McCulley.

I am reviewing the 1998 "collector's edition" released by UAV Entertainment/Sterling Entertainment Group. It is an 82-minute, black-and-white film. It is more than a mere classic.

Set in the early 1800s while the California territory was still under Spanish rule (tyranny and oppression), the movie starts off at a rapid pace. A soldier is talking to his sergeant in the local bar about how he was beating a native and Zorro intervened, then left a Z cut into his face to show the world that he is an oppressor. Sgt. Gonzales (Noah Beery) gets on a kick about all the horrible things he would do if he met Zorro face-to-face, but he can never catch "the bandit." Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks Sr.) appears. We immediately see that Zorro is an excellent swordsman who loves to have his fun. He enjoys humiliating his opponents more than harming them.

Zorro is actually the prim and proper, somewhat effeminate Don Diego Vega who recently returned from Spain. Only his servant, the mute Bernardo (Tote Du Crow), knows his identity and alter-life ... and he is not talking. Diego intends to get the dons to stand united behind him and overthrow the greedy governor and his evil military captain, the brute named Ramon (Robert McKim). But he must keep his identity secret until the time is right for their uprising. In the meantime, he intends to make sure the oppressors pay for their wrongs. And pay they do!

Things get a bit complicated for Zorro when Diego's father decides that since his worthless son refuses to engage in anything else manly, he can at least make some grandchildren. The elder Don Vega arranges for Diego to meet (and he'd certainly better marry or put forth an extreme effort at proposing to) the daughter of Don Carlos Pulido (Charles Hill Mailes), Lolita (Marguerite De La Motte). Diego is smitten by the beauty, though he must carry on his charade, which repulses her to no end. She is distraught over the idea of marrying him. Her father, however, sees this as a means to regain his status and wealth. Like it or not, Lolita is marrying Don Diego. End of discussion.

Lolita is fond of saying that if only she were a man, she would be doing exactly what Zorro is doing. Diego pops back in for a visit as Zorro and Lolita is smitten. Of course, this only makes her more reluctant to have anything to do with Diego. Oh, what a tangled web we do weave....

While Diego juggles his personal life, Captain Ramon has the priest, Fray Felipe (Walt Whitman), whipped for supposedly swindling Governor Alvarado (George Periolat) of some taxes and then has the Pulido family arrested for treason and abetting Zorro. Zorro is backed into a corner and no longer can afford the luxury of choosing when to stage the uprising. He must act!

I love this movie, though the swordplay and stunts are not as good as the later versions and the horsemanship is all but absent, though Lolita does mention that the people say he rides a horse like he is part of it. Everything is overly dramatic -- the trademark of the silent movies. These actors had to get the point across without words, so they exaggerated every little detail. The most minute facial expression or body gesture becomes a grand event in the silent movies. The subtitles only give you the synopsis of something. The remainder is left up to the actors to convey. And this entire cast is quite skilled in that area!

Another trademark of these old films is the extreme (and I do mean blindingly extreme) contrast. The whites will blind you and the black is pitch black until it shines. In several places, the film bleaches out completely, especially the parts that were shot in daylight. Since this film was already old when I was born, I cannot state whether this is due to the aging of the film or the way the movie was photographed. I suspect that it is a byproduct of aging on that high-contrast photography.

Yet another trademark of the old movies, the action was shot at a slower film speed and then the movie is played at regular speed, so the action scenes are all really fast-moving -- literally. It is comical to watch.

This version of The Mark of Zorro is as much comedy as action. It does not build the suspense to great heights, like our modern versions. But it is well worth watching. You will find this one satisfying in so many ways.

If you have ever seen one of the Zorro films and liked it, I recommend that you get the set of Zorros and observe the metamorphosis of Zorro into our modern hero. Each subsequent writer and director left their mark right alongside Zorro's and it is extremely interesting to see which modifications to the character came with which generation. Still, the bottom line is that we may have changed Zorro, but each generation since 1920 has loved Zorro and brought him back to life to fight for the underdog and free the oppressed. He was our original action hero. He will likely always remain in our hearts and on our movie screens -- and it all began right here with The Mark of Zorro.

review by
Alicia Karen Elkins

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