Classic Musings: The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Long before it became en vogue to condemn the bombardment of superhero origin movies and remakes coming out of Hollywood, Rouben Mamoulian's The Mark of Zorro excelled at being both of those, in a roundabout way, as a new talkie adaptation of Johnston McCulley's "The Curse of Capristrano". In the height of the swashbuckler genre's popularity, already enjoying success with another recent remake of a Douglas Fairbanks-starring silent film, The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, this lavish production sets up a dashing contender in Tyrone Power as it tells how a handsome man from a wealthy family uses both his stature and a black-clad secret identity for the good of the people. Dusty, genuine production value, charismatic performances, and a small bounty of superb duels later on prove that redoing the Zorro mythology for a new era was certainly worth the effort, leaving a mark on the vigilante hero genre that still lingers after nearly three-quarters of a century.

The Mark of Zorro charts the transformation of Don Diego Vega (Power) into the sword-wielding vigilante of legend, starting off in his military service overseas. Popular and established as an exceptional dueler among his colleagues, Diego receives an urgent call to return back to California, where he has little knowledge of what's happened in his absence. He discovers that the government has taken a more authoritative control of the area, lorded over by a new mayoral entity (J. Edward Bromberg) -- alongside a mean, yet capable captain, Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone) -- whose heavy-handed taxation and abuse of policy has resulted in a destitute living situation for the commoners. Instead of taking on the government head-on, Diego brainstorms an alternative method of implementing change, maintaining a somewhat aloof, hoity-toity version of himself in the public eye to divert from his scheme: donning black clothes, riding a black horse, and robbing profiteers to give back to the poor as the mythical freedom fighter Zorro.

Much as there's little difficulty in seeing the influence that this character has upon modern-day superheroes like Batman, it's also easy to see how the likes of Robin Hood and The Scarlet Pimpernel impacted the origin story of Zorro: a melting pot of folklore, double identities, targeting the privileged and battling against injustice. What's compelling about Zorro, especially in how it comes to life in the ‘40s version, lies in how Diego Vega actively uses both his public persona and the threat imposed by the bandit Zorro in his scheme against the government. Between the gorgeously-captured stone walls and throughout the heat-baked streets of a Californio province before the transition into a U.S. state, Diego creates this dangerous yet constructive alter ego that isn't just a means of protecting his identity, but also a device he uses as a sort of bargaining chip in the subterfuge furthered by his foolishly highbrow public persona. Seeing his machinations fall into place becomes one of the film's core strengths.

Interestingly, Zorro himself doesn't appear too often in The Mark of Zorro. It takes some time for Diego Vega to reach his home and learn that the situation's dire enough to require such an unlawful presence, but even after Zorro gallops onto the scene in his first dramatic arrival, the masked hero only shows up when he's absolutely necessary. This isn't a story built on Zorro's grand escapades and legendary duels for the audience to marvel at, but on how the looming and enigmatic threat of his emergence falls into the plans of Diego Vega to influence the government. Because of this, a lot of pressure falls on the shoulders of Tyrone Power's charisma through the many hats that his character wears, something that comes naturally to the pencil-mustached actor in scenes of both roguish gusto as a bandana-adorned outlaw and as a self-involved nobleman. From sleight-of-hand parlor tricks and schmoozing with the bureaucrats to the cautious ways he conceals and displays his affection for Linda Darnell's Lolita, Tyrone Power's rendition of Zorro weaves together into a subtly complex charm that's a joy to behold.

Instead, The Mark of Zorro operates around a different brand of gravitas and thrills, hinged on the facets of Diego's identity. As the falsified version of Diego, there's bittersweet amusement and anticipation in seeing how he deceives his parents -- along with the gravelly-voiced man of the cloth, Fray Filipe (Eugene Pallette) -- and lures the bureaucrats into his trap, ever on the cusp of being discovered. When he comes toe-to-toe with Esteban Pasquale, there's something else in the air: suspicion, masterfully portrayed by Basil Rathbone's cunning, yet composed and not overly malicious villainy. And while Zorro does see the light of day, much of the hero's antics involve storming in and out on horseback or appearing from the shadows, heightening the commoners' expectancy of when and how their champion will show his covered face again. Despite falling into the swashbuckler genre, the excitement throughout most of this film has little to do with the volume of swordplay or intense chases, instead working with the suspense in how Diego amplifies the legend of his alter-ego with moves not unlike those made with pieces on a chessboard.

Despite the cleverness, The Mark of Zorro doesn't do much to make its audience second-guess where these moves are headed. So, when something occurs like the legendary sword duel between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone, it's unsurprising because of the likelihoods of Diego's plan and the obvious nature of where the story's serialized escapade was destined to go. Frankly, that doesn't really matter when the swashbuckling gets as vigorous and well-orchestrated as it does here, with the sweat on the two men's brows and the unkempt nature of their appearances progressing with each parry and blitzed forward motion -- one of the finest stage fencing duels committed to film. A culmination of stratagems, political strife, and family legacy produces a dazzling climax for The Mark of Zorro amid this spirited battle, smartly concluding the story in a way that could either complete the Zorro mythology in a blaze of revolutionary glory or open the door for further superheroic adventures. No sequel hook or stingers necessary, just the notion that there will always be wrongs for the man behind the mask to right.

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