The Mark of Zorro (1940)

When it’s on: Thursday, 15 January (5.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

It isn’t hard to see why they keep making films based on the legend of Robin Hood. His is the eternal tale of someone risking everything for the betterment of those around him, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, made all the more powerful because Robin himself is often portrayed as an aristocrat who has turned outlaw in order to work against the world’s injustices. How much historical truth there is behind any of the yarns remains anyone’s guess, and some academics have tried to do exactly that, though the mythology does suggest there are accounts of a real-life Anglo-Saxon yeoman who defied his Norman overlords, perhaps even more than one, upon which all this is based. All the same, never let the facts get in the way of a good story, and over the centuries we’ve been treated to enough ballads, poems, literature and eventually translations into screen outlaws to make Robin Hood the archetypal English hero. If only there was an American alternative…

Unlike Robin, the roots of Zorro, that cunning Californian rogue, are entirely fictional. He first popped up in a 1919 pulp magazine serial, written by Johnston McCulley, and became so popular that the writer was turning out further stories until his death in 1958. Douglas Fairbanks picked up the tale for his first feature for the studio he’d helped to form, United Artists, and scored a significant swashbuckling hit, just as he would with his version of Robin Hood. Wind ahead a further two decades, and Twentieth Century Fox wishing to cash in on the box office glory of Warner Brothers’ The Adventures of Robin Hood. Fox didn’t want to lavish vast sums of cash into their project and so out went expensive ‘gimmicks’ like Technicolor, lavish sets and location shooting, and similarly trimmed down were the action set pieces in favour of bawdy humour and character development. They might not have had Errol Flynn, but they could call on perhaps the next best thing, Tyrone Power, as the film’s cheerful star, and around him assembled a cast culled in part from actors who worked on the 1938 hit and were willing to reprise their roles, most notably Basil Rathbone as an almost identical sword wielding villain.

The plot sounds like a reprise of Robin Hood, though its most natural inspiration is Emma Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, which itself had been already adapted a number of times by the time The Mark of Zorro was released. It’s the 1820s. Power plays Don Diego Vega, the wealthy son of a Los Angeles ‘mayor’, who at the film’s start is being educated in a Madrid military academy. Called home and looking forward to naught but a life of boredom, Diego discovers that California, at the time still in Mexican hands, has much changed. His father has been booted out of office and Los Angeles is now governed by the oafish Don Luis Quintero (J Edward Bromberg), a money grabber whose endless pursuit of wealth at the expense of the starved peons is enforced by Rathbone’s swordsman, Captain Esteban Pasquale.

Seeing firsthand the oppression and plight of the populace, Diego decides at this first meeting with the villains to affect the role of a foppish wastrel, convincing everyone that his time in Madrid has given him effete airs and graces. By night, however, he dons the black uniform and mask of Zorro and terrorises the regime, stealing taxes from the authorities and redistributing them to the poor, making daring escapes from soldiers in the dead of night, demanding the resignation of Quintero and enlisting the help of his old mentor, Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallett, another Hood alumnus playing more or less the same role). As the ransom on Zorro’s head increases, so he finds love in the winsome shape of Lolita (Linda Darnell), Quintero’s niece. The trouble is that Lolita is enchanted by tales of Zorro’s derring do, but finds Diego to be the most appalling popinjay, though their union is encouraged by Quintero who is growing desperate to legitimise his grip on power.

All this plot takes some time to develop, and Russian director Rouben Mamoulian takes time to create both the world into which Diego stumbles and the affectation of the dual identity he goes by. Power, agreeable and dark enough to look suitably Hispanic, looks like he’s having a great time in both roles. There’s a brilliant scene in which he first meets Quintero and Pasquale and realises he needs to disguise his true disgust at what Los Angeles has turned into, the affectation of his camp public personality spun ‘on the spot’ and before our eyes as he eases into his part. He’s given some excellent throwaway lines. Informed that Pasquale used to be a fencing instructor in Barcelona, he remains unimpressed and replies ‘how exhausting’, both insulting the swordsman and perpetuating his own, self-perpetuated image. To viewers, it may not be enough to mask the blindingly obvious fact that a man newly returned to California just happens to coincide with the first appearance of a dangerous outlaw, but Power does such a good job of hiding his true character that it’s an entirely winning conceit.

The film’s lower budget becomes an ally to the action in some instances. Much of it is filmed indoors, on sound stages, giving the fights a closed in, almost claustrophobic tension, This is best illustrated in the inevitable showdown between Diego and Pasquale, which takes place in a single room, no leaping around castle sets and no escape. One of those men is surely going to die here. The resulting swordfight is around three minutes of sheer exhilaration, fought at close quarters. Rathbone excelled in these roles because he was a trained fencer, meaning a stunt double did not have to be used in fighting scenes. Whilst Power was unable to match him and was substituted by the son of choreographer, Fred Cavens, in some of the fight’s longer shots, Rathbone told later that Power’s abilities with a blade far exceeded those of Flynn.

The black and white photography also turns into a bonus, all those shadows coming to the aid of our hero. One great moment is his first meeting as Zorro with Quintero. The Alcalde is working at his desk late one night, watched from a dark corner by Zorro; all we can see of him is his eyes, before silently he snuffs out the room’s single candle and confronts Quintero to make his whispered threats. It’s a scene filled with menace, all implied rather than shown, given how little Zorro actually does in order to strike untold terror into his opponent.

Whilst perhaps not quite reaching the ultimate fun levels of The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro is still a fine way to while away ninety minutes. There are some unexpected moments of humour for modern viewers, for instance as this is a Spanish speaking outpost the characters duly exclaim ‘Santa Maria!’ at regular intervals. It’s also surprisingly adult in tone. Power’s affectations as Diego, especially in his ingratiating scenes with Quintero’s wife, played by Gale Sondergaard, on whom he’s trying to sell the dream of moving to Madrid, are illustrations in being the ‘gay best friend’. Many of the gags are broad in tone, the allusions to Pasquale’s continuous fiddling with his sword being euphemistic, not to mention the clear implications of the affair he’s had or is having with Sondergaard’s character. This, perhaps, is the influence of Mamoulian himself, a director who was entirely capable of being kicked off projects for bringing too much of an individual style to the studio system production line of movies.

The Mark of Zorro: ****

4 Replies to “The Mark of Zorro (1940)”

  1. This is a fine film, Mike, and you’ve gone into lots of reasons why that is so. Frankly, I’m a bit of a sucker for any kind of swashbuckling and Power was always good in such parts. I’m always impressed by how good set bound dramas looked in this era, regardless of budget, and I’m glad you referred to that aspect.

    1. Thanks Colin. Fellow sucker for this sort of caper, and unashamedly so. I admit it took me a little while to warm to it, but when I did I really did, and the illusion of Zorro being able to pop up wherever and whenever he fancied helped. That scene in Quintero’s office where Zorro theeatens him is great, as is the fight between your man and Pasquale.

  2. Haven’t seen this for years, I really must revisit it. My main memory is the climactic duel being a good’un (sucker for a good sword fight, me), but it sounds as if there’s an awful lot more to enjoy too.

    Considering all the reiterations of Robin Hood, it’s a wonder Zorro doesn’t make it to the big screen more often — especially with the current superhero glut, actually, which a masked vigilante fits right into. Of course there were the two Antonio Banderas films, the first of which is a favourite, but the (belated) sequel was a decade ago now. Maybe Lone Ranger‘s lack of success put the studios off such concepts? Who knows.

    1. Thanks Bob. I wonder if the difference between Robin and Zorro is the former’s tenuous claim that it’s rooted in fact, otherwise there’s little between them really. Possibly it could be that the second Banderas Zorro flick really wasn’t very good, not that quality or otherwise ever stopped them when it’s coming to recycling Robin Hood films. That Ridley Scott effort from a few years ago was a crushing disappointment, but the love of the legend seems to be intact.

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