In old Spanish California, the oppressive colonial government is opposed by Zorro, masked champion of the people, who appears out of nowhere with flashing sword and an athletic sense of humor, scarring the faces of evildoers with his Mark. Meanwhile, beautiful Lolita is courted by villainous Captain Ramon, rich but effete Don Diego... and dashing Zorro, who is never seen at the same time as Don Diego. As Zorro continues to evade pursuit, Ramon puts the damsel in distress...
Douglas Fairbanks ... Don Diego Vega / Señor Zorro
Noah Beery ... Sgt. Pedro Gonzales
Charles Hill Mailes ... Don Carlos Pulido
Claire McDowell ... Dona Catalina Pulido
Marguerite De La Motte ... Lolita Pulido
Robert McKim ... Capt. Juan Ramon
George Periolat ... Gov. Alvarado
Walt Whitman ... Fray Felipe
Sidney De Gray ... Don Alejandro (as Sydney De Gray)
Tote Du Crow ... Bernardo
Director: Fred Niblo
Codecs: MPG1 / MPG1
THE MARK OF ZORRO (United Artists, 1920), directed by Fred Niblo, based on the novel "The Curse of Capristano," marked the debut of Douglas Fairbanks in what he does best, swashbuckling adventure. This also set the pattern for other masked heroes created in later years, ranging from The Lone Ranger to comic book heroes as Spider-Man or Batman, among others.
The story, set in the 19th century, focuses on the corruption in politics in Old California in which a mysterious masked man dressed in a dark cloak, avenges the wrongs of the community, and leaving his "Z" mark with his sword wherever he goes, even, as with the very first shot in the opening of the story, on the cheek of one of the soldiers. The question to this mystery is "who is this masked man known as Zorro?", the man who wants to right the injustices done to the common people. At the same time, there is Don Diego Vega (Douglas Fairbanks), a young man who has just returned from his education in Spain to be with his father, appearing to all as a foppish weakling whose more interested in music and poetry than fighting for the common cause. He even gives the impression that no woman would ever marry him. Even the beautiful Lolita (Marguerite De La Motte) finds Don Diego not to her liking but Zorro fascinating. But of course, as with the mild-mannered reporter of Clark Kent turning into Superman, Don Diego Vega becomes Zorro when necessary, full of confidence and quick with the sword, plus sporting his flashing smile, especially after winning his defeat.
Also seen in the supporting cast are Noah Beery as Sergeant Gonzalez; Robert McKim as Captain Ramon; Charles Hill Mailes as Don Carlos; Walt Whitman as Frey Felipe, among others. Beery as Gonzalez has one of his most memorable moments on screen in a well staged presentation in which he crosses swords with Zorro. Other memorable moments include Zorro's rescuing a Padre from being flogged; and Zorro's climax which he swings into action avenging with enemies of the state.
Marguerite De La Motte, whose name isn't that well known today, was a frequent Fairbanks co-star and notably his favorite leading lady. Aside from THE MARK OF ZORRO, she and Fairbanks appeared in ARIZONA (1918), the modern-day comedy titled THE NUT (1921); THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1921), and its sequel, THE IRON MASK (1929). She was in her day what Olivia De Havilland was to swashbuckler Errol Flynn in his adventure sagas of the 1930s and '40s, a decorative co-star.
Obviously a big success in 1920, and ranking one of the best known comedic adventures of the silent screen, THE MARK OF ZORRO did enjoy frequent TV revivals, especially on public television way back in 1971 during its popular 13-week series of THE SILENT YEARS as hosted by Orson Welles, which print, from the Killiam collection, features an excellent piano score by William Perry and color tinting. Over the years, THE MARK OF ZORRO has been available on video cassette, notably through Blackhawk Video, others with different underscoring, ranging from organ score to even slow playing violins, but none can beat the great Perry piano score, which helps the presentation this silent movie move along at a very fast pace. As the popularity of cable television began to increase by the 1980s, THE MARK OF ZORRO did play to a new audience on Arts and Entertainment (A&E) before going on American Movie Classics (where it was presented with an organ score) and Turner Classic Movies (where it continues to play from time to time on its SILENT SUNDAY NIGHTS at midnight with the Perry piano score).
Hollywood has seen other Zorros in the future, the best known being the 1940 sound remake for 20th Century-Fox starring another screen team of Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell; Reed Hadley in the Republic chaptered serial, ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION (1939); as well as the Disney TV series of the 1950s starring Guy Williams, for which baby boomers of that era remember so well. All these actors manage present Zorro in their own original style, none trying to copy or rip-off the Fairbanks carnation, but all owing to the Fairbanks character.
THE MARK OF ZORRO included a sequel, fortunately not ZORRO 2, as it would be titled today, but as DON Q, SON OF ZORRO, in 1925, in which Fairbanks plays both father and son, with the son dominating the storyline. Fairbanks original screen hero comes to life in this fast-paced 90 minute adventure (there is also a video presentation that includes it in video acu-speed running nearly two hours) which seems to improve with each repeated viewing, especially with (here I go again!) the William Perry piano score. Long live the legend of Zorro.
Besides being entertaining in itself, "The Mark of Zorro" also provides Douglas Fairbanks with a nice showcase, in a dual role that gives him plenty of good material to work with. While other versions of the Zorro legends are now more familiar to present-day audiences, this one is probably still better than any of the others except for the 1940 version with Tyrone Power.
The 1998 update had big names and a big budget, but it was of much lower quality, glossy and over-played at a number of points, and with too much material of comic-book quality at other times.
Fairbanks works nicely both as Don Diego and as Zorro, and he gets opportunities to display many different talents. He gets to display his swash-buckling yet easy-going persona, and then at other times is able to show a more refined, sometimes vulnerable side. Not only does he make both personalities work, but he melds them together into a believable whole, not so much by means of artifice as by the vigor and sincerity of his screen presence.
The story, likewise, presents an interesting situation that works Fairbanks in well with the other characters. Though they are less interesting in themselves, the secondary characters each play a useful role in the story and in the ideas that it suggests. This old version of the Zorro tale holds up well - at least for those who enjoy silent movies - and it presents a nicely paced and entertaining story
This film is apparently Douglas Fairbanks' first swashbuckler and for a first, it is very good--though I still think his later film, THE BLACK PIRATE, is easily the better of the two films. And, because it is a first for Fairbanks AND one of the earliest swashbucklers period, I cut it a little more slack and don't score this film quite as stringently as later ones in the genre.
Douglas plays the somewhat wimpy and effeminate son of a well-respected member of the California gentry during the final days of Spanish rule. I say "somewhat" because in later Zorro films, these aspects are much more apparent--making his persona seem gay and a coward--much like the Scarlet Pimpernel character (who poses as a fop yet fights for justice). As Don Diego Vega, Fairbanks did a decent job. As Zorro, he was wonderful and athletic--and very magnetic.
The direction, writing and acting was just fine. The only problem I found with the film is that the final resolution seemed to happen a little too quickly and easily. I wish it had been drawn out longer and the sword fighting sequences had been a little longer and more complex. Regardless, it STILL is an amazing and watchable film--even in the sound and special effects saturated world of today.