100 Film Favorites – #32: The Mask of Zorro
(Martin Campbell, 1998)
“When the people need him, Zorro will be there.”
Most of these posts have started off with a plot summary, then followed up with some relevant historical factoids. Today, we’re shaking things up and beginning with the history lesson.
The character of Zorro first appeared in Johnston McCulley’s 1919 pulp serial The Curse of Capistrano. The story introduces many enduring elements of the Zorro legend: Don Diego de la Vega is a nobleman living in colonial California in the early 1800s, prior to Mexico’s independence from Spain. Growing disgusted by the mistreatment of the Mexican villagers at the hands of the Spanish aristocracy and other corrupt officials, Diego dons the guise of Zorro (Spanish for “fox”). In a black cape and mask, and armed with a rapier and whip, Zorro fights the oppression of the commoners. To mock his enemies, Zorro always leaves a calling card, by slashing a “Z” at the scene of his exploits with three quick swipes of his sword. And to effectively conceal his secret identity, Diego plays the part of a boring, selfish fop in “real life,” only showing his true passion and fighting prowess while in his Zorro persona.
The Curse of Capistrano was a sensation from its first publication. Hollywood hotshots Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, co-founders of United Artists (along with Charlie Chaplin & D.W. Griffith), came across the story on their honeymoon, and soon production of The Mark of Zorro, the character’s first cinematic appearance, was underway. Fairbanks’ portrayal of the character in 1920 was instrumental in cementing the look of Zorro, and in contributing significantly to his popularity. The film was later remade in 1940, revitalizing the public’s enthusiasm for the character. Original author Johnston McCulley would go on to author more than fifty Zorro stories, and, when he died in 1958, Zorro was in its first television incarnation, a hit series produced by Walt Disney and starring Guy Williams in the lead role.
But perhaps Zorro’s greatest legacy is the character’s formative influence on the superhero genre. Think about it: He’s rich; he fights crime in a black cape; his butler’s the only one who knows his true identity; he has a secret cave under his house…ringing any bells? Though Zorro wasn’t the first masked vigilante hero (elements of his character were borrowed from fellow pulp protagonists the Scarlet Pimpernel and Spring-Heeled Jack), comic book artist Bob Kane has acknowledged Zorro as his inspiration in creating the character of Batman.
Okay, so maybe that was a bit of a long-winded introduction just to point out the Zorro-Batman connection. But there’s method to my madness. Just as the early Zorro stories inspired the creation of Batman, I have my suspicions that The Mask of Zorro may have inspired the 1999 animated series Batman Beyond. Both depict the man we have come to identify with each respective vigilante role as elderly and weakened, deciding to “pass the torch” by training a younger man to take up the mantle.
Specifically, The Mask of Zorro opens in 1821 on the eve of the original Zorro’s last great ride. Diego de la Vega, despite his status as a Spanish-born lord, or Don, is fighting against Spain in the Mexican War of Independence. Don Montero, the royal governor of California, discovers Diego’s identity and raids his mansion/cave complex. In the scuffle to arrest de la Vega, his wife Esperanza is shot and killed, much to the dismay of Montero, who also harbored feelings (of the creepy bad guy variety) for Esperanza. Montero has Diego arrested, sets the mansion ablaze, and absconds with de la Vega’s infant daughter, Elena, intending to raiser her as his own.
Twenty years later, Califonia is now a part of an independent, but no less tumultuous, Mexico. Don Montero returns from Spain with an adult Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in tow. Though widely unpopular among the Mexican townsfolk, Montero appeals to their status as Californians, declaring that he has a plan to make California an independent republic in its own right.
Meanwhile, Joaquin Murrieta and his brother Alejandro (Antonio Banderas), a pair of Mexican outlaws, are scratching out an illicit living through a string of petty thefts. Lawmen led by Texas Ranger Harrison Love corner the Murrietas, with Love killing and beheading Joaquin.
With revenge on both their minds, Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) and Alejandro Murrieta chance to meet in a tavern. Though de la Vega is less than impressed with Alejandro’s unkempt appearance and lack of social graces, he admires the younger man’s tenacity. Taking Alejandro on as protege, Diego begins grooming him to become the next Zorro and exact revenge on both their nemeses.
In addition to training Alejandro in sword-fighting, Diego also teaches him the finer points of etiquette and hobnobbing with high society. This allows the pair to gain entrance to an aristocratic party held by Montero, with Alejandro posing as a Don and Diego as his servant. After sharing a show-stopping, passionate dance with Elena, Alejandro is invited into Montero’s secret plotting room, along with the other Dons, to hear his villainous scheme: As war is looming between Mexico and the United States, commanding Mexican General Santa Anna is in desperate need of funding. Therefore, Montero proposes that the Dons purchase California from Santa Anna, using gold from a secret mine which Santa Anna technically already owns, but of which he is unaware. In order to hide the gold’s true origins, Montero intends to murder all the mine laborers when their work is complete.
Later, Alejandro (as Zorro) sneaks back into Montero’s hacienda to find the map showing the location of the secret mine. Much swashbuckling ensues, with Zorro battling Love, Montero, and hordes of expendable guards before slipping away with the map. Before he can fully get away, Zorro is cornered by Elena, who reveals herself to also be an accomplished swordsperson. However, Zorro seduces her by gradually cutting her dress away with flicks of his sword…which in reality would probably result in more blood-loss than arousal. But in this case, I don’t think anyone’s complaining about authenticity.
The big climactic showdown occurs at Montero’s Mystery Mine. In a further demonstration of fancy fencing, the two Zorros successfully off their respective rivals, Elena learns of her true paternity, and she and Alejandro rescue the laborers just as a cataclysmic explosion destroys the mine. Before the elderly Diego succumbs to his sword-and-explosion-related injuries, he gives Elena and Alejandro his blessing.
The ending scene mirrors the opening, with Alejandro and Elena now living in the restored de la Vega mansion, and Alejandro telling the tale of Zorro to their new baby. “When the people need him,” Alejandro says, “Zorro will be there.” All it will take is another adventure for the caped caballero to swash buckles once more.
The Mask of Zorro is a great action film which relies on traditional effects and stuntwork rather than computer graphics. Impressive choreography abounds, both in the plentiful sword-crossing and the exhilarating ballroom dance sequence. In addition to the abundant action, a rakish humor is evident throughout the film. Like Jack Sparrow, Banderas’ Zorro frequently improvises. In one scene, when he is overpowered by a giant opponent, he snatches a cannonball off the floor and simply knocks the hulk’s teeth out.
The period setting is realized well, incorporating (sometimes loosely) elements from the real history of colonial California to give the film-world an authentic feel. For instance, Ranger Harry Love really did rise to acclaim by allegedly killing outlaw Joaquin Murrieta (Alejandro is a fabrication) and exhibiting Joaquin’s severed head in a glass jar, as he does in the film.
I also admire the movie for revitalizing a character who, while popular, hasn’t been done to death yet. Zorro is identifiable, but far from ubiquitous. My first pet was a black-and-white cat named Zorro that my parents had owned since before I was born. My parents explained that he was named Zorro because he had a black “mask” of fur around his eyes, but I still didn’t really understand the reference until this film came out. By 1998, the time was right for a new Zorro to leave his mark on another generation of film-goers. The people needed him, and Zorro was there.
-The final version of the script was written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the same team who scripted The Road to El Dorado and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, as well as Aladdin and Shrek. Not too shabby a body of work.
-I strongly considered including The Legend of Zorro, the 2005 sequel to this film, in the Countdown. It also has a cool storyline, with plenty of action, humor, and scope. But…it’s just a lot less sexy when Zorro is married and has a little kid running around.
I still have to give the film major props for one thing: The villain is an anachronistic Confederate sympathizer with a freakin’ exploding SOAP TRAIN. It’s like Wild, Wild, West meets Fight Club, and it’s awesome. Just not Top 100 awesome.
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.