Last summer I reviewed the 1940 hit The Mark of Zorro (the review can be found here). It starred Tyrone Power as Don Diego, a young aristocrat turned masked vigilante, Zorro, who seeks to overthrow the corrupt governor of his home town in early 19th century, Spanish ruled California. His task isn’t easy when he has to deal with the governor’s hoard of troops and his blood thirsty Captain (played by Basil Rathbone). The original 1920 success starring silent icon Douglas Fairbanks Sr. has more or less the same story. (Both were based on the 1919 story “The Curse of Capistrano” by Johnston McCulley.) Some of the names have been changed – the governor’s name is Alvarado instead of Quintero and the captain’s name is Ramon instead of Pasquale. Other character relationships and story points present in the 1940 version are also absent from the original.
The biggest change, and what decided this film’s fate, is that Fairbanks (who co-wrote the scenario under the pseudonym Elton Thomas, his two middle names); the director Fred Niblo; the cast from George Periolat as the governor, Robert McKim as the Captain, Marguerite De La Motte as Lolita (Zorro’s love interest); and the rest of the actors decided to treat this as a melodrama rather than a fun swashbuckling action film. I find this strange as I know that was not their intent and since it is well-known that this film helped pave the way for action adventure movies at the same time that it helped transition Fairbanks from comedies to costume action picks, such as The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Baghdad (1924), and The Iron Mask (1929). (It also established Zorro’s costume as the all black number, with the cape, mask, and hat.)
While I recognize its significance in the history of silent film and film history as a whole, I can’t help but feel that it isn’t much of an action film. Oh, there’s sword fighting, some punching, and a fair bit of running around, but most of its time consists of people talking and talking…and talking……and talking until my boredom set in. A script with long paragraphs of dialogue isn’t automatically bad nor should an action film be people fighting for the entire run time. You have to balance the two. Fairbanks’s The Mark of Zorro doesn’t.
Even when Zorro does pull out his sword to tangle with foes, it isn’t all that exciting. Fairbanks first learned to fence in preparation for this film. From what I can tell, he would become an avid fencer. Maybe it’s because this was his first outing with a sword or because my eye for good fencing hasn’t been well developed yet (I’ve been fencing for about a year), but his sword fighting looked less like a master and more like a man randomly waving a sword around. Excluding one or two fights, he’s always jumping and dancing around and putting things in the way of him and his fellow dueler, such as a table in the first bout of the film. Mix this with his penchant for laughing in the face of his enemy and Zorro isn’t a pro with the blade as much as he is the mischievous Puck playing with his victims with a childlike glee. It’s a fun interpretation. One that indeed grew on me as the film progressed. His apparent lack of skill with a blade (again, to me at least) and the absence of any good dueling scenes, however, diminished him as a threat to the antagonists and as a swashbuckling hero. It simply didn’t live up to Power’s wonderful portrayal in 1940.
Fairbanks’s Diego isn’t as impressive either for the simple reason that we never see the brilliant mind behind Diego. Power’s Diego was on the surface cowardly, lazy, self-centered, and apathetic. In other words, he was the polar opposite of his sword wielding alter-ego. This was done intentionally to throw suspicion off him. In reality, Diego was smart and had the mind of the best strategist. We don’t see the cunning brain in Fairbanks’s portrayal all that often. He’s certainly not stupid, but he’s more brawn over brain in this movie. Fairbanks is great, though, at putting his Diego above suspicion. His Diego isn’t apathetic but instead absent minded. It’s not that he doesn’t care about what’s happening in town, it’s that he pays no attention to local events. He’s content laying about his sizable house doing tricks with his handkerchief or making shadow puppets on the walls, occasionally going out to a local tavern, and then going home to sleep. He doesn’t like violence, never uses a sword, isn’t romantic or charming, and has no real backbone to speak of. That’s what he wants everybody to think, at least. It’s different than Power and I actually do enjoy it. Considering the unjust stereotype that silent actors do nothing but overact, Fairbanks’s Diego is more low key than Power (not that he was widely over-the-top either). The best way I can describe the two is Power as the layabout man you remember for being egotistical and useless and Fairbanks as the notably unremarkable man you forget five minutes after meeting him.
Praise should be given to Fairbanks and his romantic co-star Marguerite De La Motte. Their chemistry is on the mark when their playing scenes between the unromantic Diego and Lolita. The first scene with Lolita and Diego is a particular treat. The two are meeting to see if Diego (who’s there on the persistence of his disappointed father who knows nothing of his vigilante exploits) wants to marry Lolita. Both actors play the scene with the exact right amount of awkwardness that I would expect to accompany a meeting of two people who are being pressured to marry despite never having encountered each other before. It creates a bit of good comedy in a movie that’s constantly fighting for my attention. So good is this first scene and the rest of the Diego and Lolita’s interactions that Zorro’s scenes with our heroine are rather over-dramatic, romantic scenes without much energy or unique romantic performances to keep me interested.
The pacing is downright atrocious in this movie. The first scene lasts an ungodly long 22 minutes and the rest of the proceedings progress at almost a snail’s pace. Finally, at the film’s climax, which was quite unexceptional, we get a bit of action between Zorro, now revealed to be Diego, and the Captain. The fight, like all the other sword action, is short and boringly staged. Also, in 1940, we see Power’s Diego mount a full on uprising, with himself, his father, and the oppressed citizens fighting against the tyrannical rulers. This all took place after the legendary duel between Power and Rathbone. In 1920, Zorro literally partakes in a runaround with the local, corrupt, and violent police force before getting in the final sword fight with the captain. After the 1940 climax, which was pure excitement, Zorro having a chase scene with our villains as opposed to some impressive dueling scenes was a massive disappointment. Zorro doesn’t even use a sword during the climax until the final duel. Zorro does encourage the town to stand-up against their oppressors, which is nice. Diego knows that Zorro is merely a tool of inspiration. He can fight against the town’s villains but it’s the citizens finally saying ‘no’ that will spell the end of the subjugation. If we had a little more of this, my appraisal of the film would be higher. Sadly, we are witness to only a small portion of this near the end and then we don’t see them do all that much besides free some wrongfully imprisoned townsfolk.
The villains, by the way, can’t get out from the future shadows of Rathbone as the terrible captain and J. Edward Bromberg as the bumbling governor. Here they’re both generic bloodthirsty rulers. Yes, Rathbone and Bromberg weren’t the most original creations either, but they were at the very least memorable and fun. Periolat and McKim are neither in this movie.
Almost endlessly I’ve compared this to its remake. I found that impossible not to do. I can’t help but feel the original to be the inferior film. There’s some fun to be had, but it’s mostly a bore. If you’ve seen neither version and are wondering which to see, I would recommend the 1940 adaption. I doubt this review will make me a big fan amongst Fairbanks fans or lovers of the original. If you like the 1920 version more than the 1940 remake then more power to you. But this is how I feel. Take that as you will.