In 1920, Douglas Fairbanks launched the peak stage in his career with THE MARK OF ZORRO, the story of an almost mythical superhero who battles tyranny in old California.
The wicked and greedy Governor Alvarado (George Periolat) has become feared throughout the land for oppressing peasants and seizing the property of aristocrats. Among the latter are Don Carlos Pulido (Charles Hill Mailes), his wife (Claire McDowell), and their daughter, Lolita (Marguerite de la
A mysterious masked man known as Zorro surfaces intermittently to protect the innocent from Alvarado and his men. Zorro is in fact Don Diego Vega (Douglas Fairbanks), the effete son of Don Alejandro (Sydney De Grey), a wealthy landowner. Zorro's true identity is known only to Don Diego's
manservant. Don Alejandro wants his son to wed Lolita, but the girl is much more attracted to the dashing Zorro, who romances her in her garden one day, just moments after Don Diego has departed. Captain Ramon (Robert McKim), a henchman of the governor, pays an unwelcome visit on the unchaperoned
Lolita. He is about to have his way with her when Zorro arrives, bests Ramon in a sword fight, and forces him to apologize to the girl.
Eventually, a posse of caballeros is formed to capture Zorro. After converting them to his cause, Zorro liberates the Pulidos from prison, where they have been impounded by Alvarado, and hides Lolita in Don Diego's home. When Ramon and his men arrive on the scene, Don Diego again outduels
them--but this time without the mask of Zorro. The world now knows that Zorro and Don Diego are one and the same. Don Diego forces the corrupt governor to abdicate and kisses his inamorata, Lolita.
The film adheres quite closely to its source material, a five-part magazine story by Johnston McCulley. Among the few new touches: the trademark "Z" with which Zorro's sword brands his opponents and the series of insipid parlor tricks performed by Don Diego (invariably accompanied by the
catchphrase, "Have you seen this one?"). These two embellishments proved to be so memorable that McCulley picked them up in his 1922 sequel, The Further Adventures of Zorro.
THE MARK OF ZORRO marked the key turning point in Fairbanks's screen career: the metamorphosis from his hail-fellow, well-met persona, invariably a contemporary American, to the more exotic and legendary adventurers for whom he is remembered today. Uncertain how the public would receive the new
Doug, he immediately followed THE MARK OF ZORRO with THE NUT (1921), a return to his early style, but when ZORRO's receipts dwarfed those of THE NUT, Fairbanks never again looked back.
Not quite as radical as Robin Hood, his old-world counterpart, Zorro does not rob from the rich to give to the poor, but defends the rights of both gentry and rabble equally. Nor does he look kindly on those who mistreat the clergy. The film's most violent moments, in fact, occur when a priest is
briefly shown being flogged by the villains.
This underlines one of the most impressive characteristics of THE MARK OF ZORRO (and similar films of the silent era): the high quota of excitement it engenders vis-a-vis the actual violence it puts on display. At no point does Fairbanks's character seriously hurt--let alone kill--anybody, and the
movie is almost an hour old before Zorro is seen lightly carving his initial on an antagonist's flesh. This discretion, along with the charismatic Fairbanks's flair for comedy and acrobatics, lends the film an upbeat, wholesome quality that was to all but disappear from the genre in later decades.
DON Q, SON OF ZORRO (1925), perhaps the quintessential Fairbanks film, was even better than its progenitor. It was followed by countless sound remakes, sequels, spin-offs, and spoofs. The only significant contribution these talkies made to the basic mix was the immortal sound effect "phfft! phfft!
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- Review: In 1920, Douglas Fairbanks launched the peak stage in his career with THE MARK OF ZORRO, the story of an almost mythical superhero who battles tyranny in old California. The wicked and greedy Governor Alvarado (George Periolat) has become feared throughou… (more)