In some ways, The Mark of Zorro looks an awful lot like 20th Century Fox was attempting to garner a little of the success achieved by the 1938 Warner Brothers’ The Adventures of Robin Hood. Both are swashbuckling adventures with an outlaw on the side of the oppressed, sword fights, horse chases, a little romance, a little politics, general adventure with a good dose of humor, the hero climbing the balcony to woo his beloved, a confrontation between hero and Basil Rathbone. It even has three of the same actors: Basil Rathbone, Eugene Pallette and Montagu Love. But I must confess that as much as I have always enjoyed The Adventures of Robin Hood, I love The Mark of Zorro. It is a film that, despite many similarities, stands on its own as one of the most fun swashbucklers ever made.
One of the things I especially like about the film is the scope it gives Tyrone Power to play two different characters: dashing hero and lover, and affected fop…and they don’t skimp on the fop, either.
Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) is at a military academy at Spain, but is called home by his father (Montagu Love), who is the Alcade (governor?) in California. But when he arrives home, he is shocked to find everything changed. His father has been forced out of office and replaced by the weaselly Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) and his bodyguard/enforcer Captain Estaban Pasquale (Basil Rathone), who is very fond if his sword and likes to swing it around for dramatic affect while speaking.
When Diego sees what has happened, he comes up with a quick plan not to reveal that he is actually a fine swordsman and instead pretends to everyone that he is a fop and dandy, too worried about his clothes and slight of hand tricks to concern himself with all the oppression and high taxes enforced by Quintero and Pasquale. His father, and especially his priest, Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallete, in a role nearly identical to the one he play in The Adventures of Robin Hood) are disgusted with him, but Diego has a plan. Disguising himself as a bandit, he begins to prey on Quintero and his soldiers and to take back some of the stolen wealth from the peons (the name for the people at the bottom rung of society). However, his plan is not so much about helping peons, as it is about making California so hot for Quintero that Quintero will eventually leave for fear of his life.
And that’s what I really liked about The Mark of Zorro. The story not only gives him scope to ride about and fight, but also to scheme and machinate. Don Diego is fighting a two-front war single handed. While he is robbing, leaving his signature Z on every convenient surface, terrorizing Quintero and his cohorts, he is also trying to convince him, in the role of Don Diego, that the masked bandit is probably a madman who will end up cutting his throat. Meanwhile, he is flirting with Quintero’s wife, Inez (the magnificent Gale Sondergaard), who despises her uncouth husband and longs for the glamour and elegance of Madrid, a longing happily fueled by Don Diego.
At the same time, he has fallen in love with Quintero’s niece, Lolita (a very young Linda Darnell, still only 17 or 18), who has developed a crush on the masked bandit, but can’t stand the prissy and languid Diego.
One of my favorite scenes is at a small family party at the Quinteros to celebrate the arranged engagement between Diego and Lolita. Pasquale, a man who prides himself on his swordplay and virility and who has definitely been carrying on with Inez (one suspects they are the ones who propelled Quintero to his current position) is jealous of Diego, who has fascinated Inez with his talk of Madrid, court, fashion and pretty speeches. Inez is jealous of Lolita, because she is younger and engaged to Diego. Diego is trying to keep his flirtation with Inez up, while surreptitiously wooing Lolita (especially through a dance) and Lolita can barely tolerate to even sit next to him (except when they dance and he shows a spark of virility himself).
The inevitable sword fight between Power and Rathbone is also excellent (poor Rathbone lost so many fights, one can’t help feeling a pang of sympathy and wish that he’d win one, just once, since he really is the superior fencer). The fight occurs in a much smaller space than The Adventures of Robin Hood, less bouncy, but more personal, more face-to face and quite exciting.
The Mark of Zorro is a remake of the silent 1920 The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks, but I do not know to what extant the 1940 version owes to the original. Does it have more in common with the silent film or The Adventures of Robin Hood? Does anyone know? The silent film is on my list of films I most want to see next.