Zorro is one of those characters I’m aware of, but have never actively watched any of the myriad films or television shows featuring him and his feared “Z” mark. Best known to fans in his 1957 Disney television series, Zorro is a Latin Robin Hood with a healthy dose of what would shape the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman. 1940’s The Mark of Zorro was the fourth filmed iteration of the Spanish hero and the gaudiest take up to that point. 20th Century-Fox spared no expense with casting their best actors to produce a film that’s slight but effective fun.
Don Diego (Tyrone Power) returns to his hometown of Los Angeles only to discover his father, the former alcalde has been replaced by a villainous patsy. Diego, unwilling to put up with the injustice, dons a black bandanna and takes matters into his own hands as the vigilante Zorro.
My experience with the Zorro franchise is limited to the two modern-day films starring Antonio Banderas, and even then I’ve only watched the crappy sequel. So things can only look up, right? I assumed The Mark of Zorro would be a typical swashbuckler on par with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), and it’s an apt-comparison; both deal with privileged men stealing from the rich to give to the poor, with Basil Rathbone in the role of adversary. What’s surprising is how little black bandanna action there is despite the Zorro name in the title. Tyrone Power is more often found in the role of dashing aristocrat Don Diego than Zorro. The entire venture starts in medias res, with Don Diego ready to return to “Los Ang-elEEZE” to “marry, raise fat children and watch [his] vineyards grow.” Power’s Diego is wealthy and entitled, but the actor’s sweetness and, yes, handsomeness, allow us to ignore those issues. Let’s be real, the guy would definitely come home to treat the people beneath him like garbage.
As if it’s a fairy tale, Diego returns home to a world vastly changed, where the people are taxed incessantly. As soon as the audience sees the first tax notice go up, Don Diego goes around the corner – maybe Superman’s phone booth is nearby – to get into his Zorro costume. The Mark of Zorro doesn’t play this first transformation as something to get excited over. In fact, it plays like this is a common occurrence, though, as far as the audience is concerned, we don’t know how Don Diego came to fashion the character Zorro. I immediately wondered if this was a sequel because the Zorro persona is played as ingrained in audiences’ minds. This was the fourth film, the first with Power, so it was possibly assumed audiences had seen those prior films? Like the titular Caped Crusader of Gotham, Diego’s persona is that of the polished aristocrat who spends his time flirting with the new alcalde’s wife – with a fey persona that hasn’t aged particularly well – and complaining about first world problems like his bathwater’s temperature. These traits are meant to throw the government characters off his scent, but his alibis have more holes than Swiss cheese. Zorro did arrive only once Diego, the newcomer, shows up, after all.
Diego’s scheming to get the new alcalde, a rube played by J. Edward Bromberg, takes up most of the 90-minute runtime, so when Zorro appears things liven up. Director Rouben Mamoulian’s camera takes advantage of the big screen as crane shots capture Zorro racing around fields on horseback. As a swarm of soldiers chase him, Zorro takes the one bridge across a gully while the rest use a ditch, making for an effective and riveting sequence. However, the film’s best sequence comes when Diego is out of costume. The climax rightfully involves a swordfight between Don Diego and the evil Captain Esteban Pasquale, the alcalde’s refined right-hand man. Rathbone’s become one of my favorite actors to see on-screen and it’s frustrating to see he always played villains. (I recommend watching him in Son of Frankenstein for a non-villain role.) Rathbone is just as cultured and debonair as Power; I’d say even more so. His character lacks any significant background short of being the alcalde’s muscle, but there’s no denying Esteban rules with an iron fist. An accomplished swordsman in real life, Rathbone’s duel with Power is beautifully filmed if not truncated in comparison to similar scenes in The Adventures of Robin Hood, but it is the best moment in the entire film.
I’m not leaving out the women, and goodness knows you can never ignore the beauteous Linda Darnell. Darnell plays the demure Lolita, the white-clad beauty threatened with living in a nunnery. Diego decries this idea as a waste, and I’m inclined to agree. Unlike Olivia de Havilland in Robin Hood, or even Darnell in her other films opposite Power, she’s a passive presence used as the sweet reward waiting for Diego when he give up his outlaw ways.
The Mark of Zorro is a fun swashbuckler despite the minimized appearance of the title character. Power and Rathbone’s swordfight gives you enough reason to watch. Don’t expect a proper origin to the character so go in knowing the history.
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