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: ****

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 24 December (1.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Channel 5 dominate their Christmas Eve schedules with three stonewall classics. they start at 9.30 am with the epic Gone with the Wind, a stretch at more than four hours long but well worth the sofa creasing investment for a genuine slice of Golden Age cinema. Later in the afternoon, there’s the 1951 adaptation of Scrooge, routinely considered the best amidst a sea of Christmas Carol flicks with the always fantastic Alistair Sim at its crotchety centre. But if there’s one film in which to invest the time, for me it’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a box office smash from 1938 that redefined the matinee swashbuckler, it’s nothing less than an absolute treat.

Even as early as the thirties, the legends surrounding Robin Hood had already been committed to celluloid several times, the earliest entry dating from 1906 whilst the 1922 version starring Douglas Fairbanks had set the standard for all to follow. By the mid-1930s, Warner Brothers’ track record of scoring ticket selling gold with gritty crime dramas started to fall foul of the Hays Code, which imposed censorship standards upon studios based on moral acceptability. Searching for material that would meet the criteria, Warners opted for a new version of Robin Hood, tapping into the Boys Own potential of a pure-hearted, good versus evil action movie whilst chopping away the excesses that had made the Fairbanks film a bit of a trawl at times. Lopping off the lengthy introduction to the tale that involved Robin returning from the Crusades to focus on his adventures in Sherwood Forest, the studio went on to create a smash hit that would also gain approval at the Academy Awards. Three key elements would go on to set it apart – sound, colour and Errol Flynn.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was of course made at a time when sound came as standard, the ‘Talkies’ now fully ingrained a mere decade after they had began consigning silent cinema to a thing of the past. However, the production made the most of the technology. Professional archer Howard Hill was drafted in to play a small role (he features in the film’s archery contest), but also lent his shooting to the noise made by the arrows as they left bows and found the mark, thanks to the meaty sound produced by the thicker type of wood he favoured. It’s this attention to detail that helped make the film a hit. The arrows suddenly sounded like they had real impact, one felt no doubt by the extras who were paid $150 dollars each to take one in the chest from Hill’s bow. Further gold came from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Born in Vienna, Korngold moved to America to compose the score and narrowly avoided becoming a Jewish victim of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, which made him claim that Robin Hood saved the lives of himself and his family. In return, he produced a suite that captured the heraldry completely befitting a tale of legend. The main theme is memorable enough, but his music adds real dramatic heft to the scenes involving Norman oppression over England’s Anglo-Saxon population, whilst there’s delight to be had from the film’s romantic moments, Korngold accompanying the growing love between Flynn and Olivia de Havilland with motifs that suggest the development of her understanding for his cause in fighting the good fight. It seems incredible to learn that Korngold initially begged to be released from his contract as he saw his work as utterly inappropriate to the style of film being made; the pair fit together perfectly.

Technicolor was still something of a novelty in the 1930s, yet it was a process that could make films look fresh and modern. Some, like The Wizard of Oz, used to it brilliant dramatic effect, juxtaposing the black and white of the Kansas based scenes to the bursts of colour when Dorothy has her adventures in the land of Oz. The three-strip process was expensive, and as costs on Robin Hood escalated it was agreed that colour would add to the film’s storybook feel, all those pennants, flags and crests showing up fantastically well. During the location shooting in Chico, California, which stood in for Sherwood Forest, the crew would spray-paint the foliage to make it look ‘greener’. The aim was to replicate the atmosphere evoked from those evocative, watercolour images in the books about the legend, and there’s little doubt it worked perfectly, leading to the film’s Oscar for its production design.

Initially, Warners turned to their marquee star, James Cagney, to play Robin Hood, and the very prospect of this short, angry, wholly American tough guy as England’s medieval outlaw hints at a very different film from the one that emerged. Industry differences ruled Cagney out, however (he walked out on Warners for breach of contract), and had them searching for a new Robin, a trail that led to Errol Flynn. Still an emerging force, the Tasmanian had impressed in 1935’s Captain Blood, a swashbuckler that pitted him against Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy in Robin Hood) and had him demonstrate sizzling chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. All three were contracted for the major starring roles in The Adventures of Robin Hood, de Havilland doing well as a principled and memorable Marion, but it’s Flynn who owns the film with his cheerful and physical performance. Handsome and carefree, he makes every scene he’s in look natural and easy, setting the tone for future Robin Hood portrayals whilst his ‘light as air’ style makes him instantly likeable as the outlaws’ leader. Rathbone is excellent as the brooding Sir Guy, leading a great triumvirate of villains alongside Claude Rains’s camp Prince John and the doltish Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). Of the merry men, Eugene Pallette almost steals the show as a wisecracking Friar Tuck, forever fending off jokes about his size, and Alan Hale Snr reprises his role from the Fairbanks Hood film as Little John.

The production was originally offered to William Keighley as director, but as the footage was reviewed the lack of urgency and excitement in the action scenes led to his dismissal and replacement with Michael Curtiz, the reliable Hungarian responsible for Captain Blood and who would go on to helm the peerless Casablanca. Curtiz understood that Robin Hood was to be made as a fantasy, with little attention paid to the realities of medieval life and struggles, and instead placing the emphasis on action and fun, the result emerging as a tightly focused effort that ran little over 100 minutes. It must have dazzled contemporary audiences, with its opulent Technicolor palette and sheer joie de vivre. Thanks to the ‘no expenses spared’ approach, the rarely bettered action scenes and Flynn’s ability to fill the lead role so spiffingly, it’s barely dated at all. Comparisons with the many revisions that came later still leave it on top. As far as this writer is concerned, it’s up there with North by Northwest and Raiders of the Lost Ark as near perfect, good-time cinema.

The Adventures of Robin Hood: *****