I began exploring the masked vigilante with the 1916 French film, Judex, and now I take up back to Hollywood with the original The Mark of Zorro (1920) starring Douglas Fairbanks. Like Judex, there is great corruption going on in the west. Instead of Paris, we find ourselves in the early 1800s. California, when the Golden State was still under Spain’s rule, and great oppression was pressed upon its Mexican citizens. California was ruled under the iron fist of Governor Alvarado (George Periolat) and his lackeys Captain Juan Ramon (Robert McKim) and Sargeant Pedro Gonzales (Noah Beery).
Alvarado ruled under the military’s might, and anyone who showed the slightest resistance was made an example. As his brute squad terrorizes the citizens, the masked vigilante Zorro arrives to save the day and carve his signature “Z” on the face of his assailant—a mark of dominance. Zorro’s anger reaches its height when Alvarado goes after Father Felipe (Walt Whitman) and lashes him within an inch of his life. Zorro comes in to save the day and gives Captain Ramon his well-deserved “Z” in return.
Also under Alvarado’s watchful eye is the Pulido family, and his vitriol against the Pulidos has brought them to financial ruin. The compassionate yet nebbish, Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks), offers to take them in and falls in love with Pulido’s daughter, Lolita (Marguerite De La Motte), in the process. Because she sees Diego as a lazy coward, she’ll have nothing to do with him. She much prefers the dashing and brave Zorro.
“…a lazy coward, she’ll have nothing to do with him. She much prefers the dashing and brave Zorro.”
It’s almost impossible to deny that Batman found his inspiration from Zorro. We’ve got the mask, secret identity of the rich alter ego and a secret lair. The critical difference between Zorro and the Caped Crusader is how Zorro uses his charisma and notoriety to inspired other masked heroes from within the society of citizen soldiers, known as the Caballeros.
Running at almost two hours, The Mark of Zorro is a silent film that slowly sets the stage and effectively builds the tension and anger of Don Diego as he shifts from merely lurking in the shadows to save the innocent to inspiring a movement to take down the evil governor.
To me, the star is Douglas Fairbanks. The shift between the nerd and the dashing is fun to watch, but fighting at the start is good but really doesn’t kick up until the end as Zorro takes on the entirety of Alvarado’s militia. Fairbanks shows off his athletic prowess in an impressive display of parkour almost a hundred years before there was parkour.
It might be hard to wrap our head around this one, but we’ve seen the lone vigilante story told time and time again, but The Mark Of Zorro was one of the first…and far more efficiently told than Judex. The story was new then, and the final action set piece still holds up today. Did I mention there’s no CG at all (OK, that was dumb)?
"…impressive display of parkour almost a hundred years before there was parkour."