At last! The first great American adventure film hits the screen.
The Mark of Zorro
Dir: Fred Niblo
Scr: Johnston McCulley, Douglas Fairbanks (uncred.), Eugene Miller (uncred.)
Phot: William C. McGann, Harris Thorpe
Premiere: Nov. 27, 1920
I am so pleased to make it here after six dozens of chapters on early American film. The decade of the 1920s was the first and the last great one in silent movies, and The Mark of Zorro starts it off with a bang.
We met Fairbanks earlier, in 1917’s Wild and Wooly. As Alistair Cooke observed, “His screen character was in many ways a fantasy in which a suddenly jolted world could escape its bewilderment.” He was a “personality” actor, one who played variations of his vivid self. Fairbanks radiated energy and optimism on screen, and he quickly became the hero of a series of romantic comedies that emphasized his remarkable athletic gifts. By the end of the first World War, Fairbanks was the most popular leading man in Hollywood.
In 1919, Fairbanks formed the United Artists film studio with Charlie Chaplin, director D.W. Griffith, and “America’s Sweetheart,” the successful actress and producer Mary Pickford. In 1920, he married Pickford. Their union made them the first significant example of the power couple, “Hollywood Royalty.” Everybody loved Doug.
It was Pickford who read the source material, Johnston McCulley’s five-part magazine story that gave birth to Zorro, “The Curse of Capistrano.” She pressed it on Fairbanks, insisting he read it as well. He was drawn to the idea of making historical romances, costume dramas with swashbuckling action. His ambition was to play Robin Hood, but he was concerned whether the public would accept him in this kind of vehicle. Zorro, the protagonist of his 30th film, represented a calculated attempt to test the waters.
The plot device of the redeemed son was plainly taken from Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, who in Henry IV is a wastrel who reforms and becomes king. Even more to the point as an influence is Baroness Orczy’s 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, about a hero with a secret identity who feigns foolishness to divert suspicion from himself. McCulley moved the setting from revolutionary France to Old California in the early 19th century. Now the hero is Don Diego de la Vega, the foppish son of a rich ranchero who, disguised as Zorro (“The Fox”), in black mask and cape, fights for the oppressed and downtrodden.
To date, movie costume dramas had largely been lumbering and pretentious. By mixing together the lavish, detailed settings and the “reckless gaiety” of Fairbanks, the result was a fast-moving, funny, and sweet adventure tale with loads of derring-do. Audiences loved it.
In the film, Fairbanks plays Don Diego as a spit-curled layabout, bored and easily fatigued, a disappointment to his father and society in general. He does not impress his intended, the spunky Lolita Pulido, daughter of a ranchero who opposes the corrupt local government. In Zorro mode, however, he dashes, leaps, swoops, makes love, and crosses blades like nobody’s business. His comic duel with the blustery Sergeant Gonzales is the first of several that punctuate the action. Zorro's signature, scarring his opponents with a "Z", was invented by Fairbanks for the film; Zorro's creator McCulley incorporated it into subsequent stories.
To make the switch between identities, Diego has a secret underground stable from which he springs on his jet-black horse Tornado. (It’s important to match.) He has one faithful servant who knows his secret. These traits would modified and passed down to heroes and superheroes in the future — most notably Batman, but also the Green Hornet, Iron Man, et al.
Zorro has a nemesis, of course, the evil Captain Ramon. Much of the film is classic melodrama, with hero and villain fighting it out, here literally over the leading lady’s body. The bravura sequence is saved for the conclusion, when Zorro leads the soldiers on a merry, stunt-filled chase that reads today like proto-parkour.
The action is swiftly paced, and there are no subplots or extraneous characters. Like Fairbanks himself, the movie exudes energy and confidence. The framing, cutting, and camera movement is strictly functional — it exists to astonish us. Often, the camera stands in for us as an amazed bystander, transcribing the Fairbanksian derring-do as the flashes past.
In the end, Diego reveals his true identity, the corrupt are overthrown, and the girl is won. The brash, upbeat swashbuckler was established, and in one form or another its popularity has continued. Fairbanks’ embodiment of the heroic spirit kept in the starry Hollywood firmament until he retired in 1934, at the age of 51. It was exhausting being Doug.
The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Buster Keaton’s ‘One Week.’
Douglas Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Character
New York: The Museum of Modern Art
The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks
Chicago: Chicago Review Press
Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer
Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks
New York: Henry Holt and Company
Douglas Fairbanks and the American Century
John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welch
Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi
Jeffrey Vance with Tony Maietta
Berkeley: University of California Press