Tag Archives: Zorro

Zorro on Film

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 13, 2015

Zorro on Film

Almost as long as there have been movies, the black-clad avenger of Spanish California has appeared in them.  Johnston McCulley’s serial The Curse of Capistrano was first published in 1919 in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly, to be followed by three more serialized Zorro stories in Argosy magazine.  The first movie Zorro was one of the best, appearing in 1920, the year after McCulley’s original publication:  the dashing and acrobatic Douglas Fairbanks.  Five years later he starred in a sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro.

Zorro never entirely left the screen for any long periods, but the next notable cinematic Zorro was Tyrone Power, romancing Linda Darnell and memorably fighting Basil Rathbone in 1940’s The Mark of Zorro.  The 1940s also saw Zorro appearing in various serials, like Zorro’s Black Whip, Zorro’s Fighting Legion and The Ghost of Zorro.  With the coming of television in the 1950s, Walt Disney provided the Baby Boomers with their most familiar version of the masked Californian—Guy Williams as the television Zorro.


Disappearing from screens both large and small during the 1960s (except perhaps for a couple of spaghetti versions), Zorro came back in the 1970s to be played by Frank Langella and French actor Alain Delon.  He was established enough as a cultural icon to be played for satire by George Hamilton in Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981).  And most recently he came back to be played by both an aging Anthony Hopkins and Spanish actor Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro (1998) and its less successful sequel The Legend of Zorro (2005).

Historical note:  Although Zorro is firmly attached to a particular time and place (pre-1820 Spanish Southern California, before Mexican independence), Zorro is not in fact an actual historical character but a fictional creation of a pulp writer in 1919.  He is fun, though, when done well.  The Banderas Zorro movies attempted to merge the fictional Zorro with the actual Mexican-era bandit Joaquin Murrieta, with limited success.  One of the problems with Zorro has always been that his primary weapon is the sword, which leads to exciting duels with the sword-wielding bad guys played by Basil Rathbone and others.  But in an era when firearms were common, Zorro would have been in trouble relying on a sword or a whip too much.


The Mark of Zorro—Fairbanks, Beery (1920, silent)
Don Q, Son of Zorro—Fairbanks, Astor (1925, silent)
The Bold Caballero—Livingston (1936)
The Californian—Ricardo Cortez (1937), in an obvious version of the Zorro story with other names.
The Mark of Zorro—Power, Darnell, Rathbone (1940)
Zorro’s Black Whip (1940s Republic serial with a woman as Zorro in Idaho; Zorro’s Fighting Legion, Ghost of Zorro et al.)
Sign of Zorro—Williams (1958; cobbled together from the 1950s Disney series)
Behind the Mask of Zorro (1965, Italian)
The Nephews of Zorro (1968, Italian)
The Mark of Zorro—Langella, Roland, Montalban (1974, MfTV and based on 1940 Power version)
Zorro—Delon (1975, French-Italian Zorro in South America)
Zorro, The Gay Blade—Hamilton, Hutton (1981)
The Mask of Zorro—Banderas, Hopkins, Zeta-Jones (1998; Dir: Campbell)
The Legend of Zorro—Banderas, Zeta-Jones (2005; Dir: Campbell)

Z–Gael Garcia Bernal (2017?; Dir:  Cuaron)



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The Legend of Zorro (2005)

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 8, 2014

The Legend of Zorro—Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rufus Sewell, Nick Chinlund, Adrian Alonso, Shuler Hensley, Michael Emerson, Julio Oscar Mechoso (2005; Dir: Martin Campbell)


The 1998 recasting of the Zorro story (Two Zorros! The passing of the mask and sword!) in The Mask of Zorro was a hit with audiences, so a sequel was inevitable.  Anthony Hopkins’ Diego de la Vega died at the end of Mask, so he doesn’t return for the sequel.  But the attractive Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas return as Diego’s daughter and the replacement Zorro Diego trained before his death.

Now it’s 1850, and Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) has taken the De la Vega name (you’ll recall his original name was Murrieta).  He and Elena have been married for almost ten years, with a son named Joaquin (after Alejandro’s long-deceased outlaw brother).  Spanish California is American territory in the wake of the Mexican War and is now voting on statehood.  Although the Zorro story is traditionally set in southern California around Los Angeles, this one seems to be set in San Mateo, not far from San Francisco in northern California.  The De la Vega marriage is stressed; Elena wants Alejandro to throw in the cape and retire from the business of righting wrongs and fighting evil, while Alejandro thinks there is still a need for Zorro and resists retirement.


Scarred villain Jacob McGivens (Nick Chinlund).

There are still villains, almost more than the viewer can keep track of.  The initial one is Jacob McGivens (Nick Chinlund), a nasty, scarred American religious fanatic trying to steal the statehood elections until Zorro leads him and his men on a merry chase.  During the chase, Zorro’s identity is momentarily revealed to a couple of other Americans (Shuler Hensley and Michael Emerson).  After this exploit, Alejandro and Elena argue and separate.  Alejandro seeks solace in strong drink.

Elena takes up with a French count Armand (Rufus Sewell) she had known in school back in Spain.  He seems charming enough, but the De la Vegas don’t agree about him.  Elena serves Alejandro with divorce papers, despite the fact that they are both presumably Catholic.


The De la Vegas are still attracted to each other (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas).

As matters develop, during his brief unmasking Alejandro was identied by the two Americans, who turn out to be Pinkerton agents.  They use that knowledge to blackmail Elena into doing some spying on Armand for them, and that’s why she has broken with Alejandro.  However, they would view her demise as unfortunate but perhaps necessary to their enterprise.  The De la Vega son Joaquin thinks his father is a coward, unlike Zorro, so he’s clearly not in on the secret, and he constantly gets in trouble at school.  The nasty McGivens is working for Armand, who in turn is part of an international conspiracy (the Knights of Aragon, whose Latin motto is “Orbis Unum”—One World) which plans to weaken the U.S. before it can attain international prominence.  They plan to do that with strategic use of nitroglycerin made from soap.

Elena’s spying is discovered (she’s not very subtle about it), and she and Joaquin are taken prisoner on Armand’s train carrying the nitroglycerin to a rendezvous.  Alejandro rides as Zorro, both to stop the train and to rescue his loved ones.  He starts by defeating and killing McGivens and his minions.  He finds himself and his horse atop Armand’s train but manages not to get killed when it goes through a tunnel.  (The mounted rider atop a moving train is a sign the things are out of hand with the movie, as in 2013’s The Lone Ranger.)   Alejandro as Zorro manages to get Joaquin off the train, and he plays an active role in the rescue.  Eventually, Alejandro and Elena escape the train as it barrels toward the end of the track with Armand on the cowcatcher at the front and a car-load of nitroglycerin in bottles.  The De la Vegas are reconciled and remarried.

As with most sequels, this is not as good as the original—in this case, significantly worse.  The plot is incoherent and, with all the squabbling between Elena and Alejandro, uninteresting.  In the improbably prominent role for child Joaquin (Adrian Alonso) in the last part of the movie, he proves to be irritating, too.  There are too many villains, and consequently too many loose ends.  With a greater role for Elena than in the first movie, we can hear that Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Spanish accent is inconsistent and unpersuasive.


Zorro (Antonio Banderas) and Armand (Rufus Sewell) duel atop a train.

The story of Zorro is rooted in a particular historical place and time, and this film moves it farther from that place and time.  It seems to take place in northern California rather than in southern California.  It is quite cavalier about anachronisms:  The Pinkertons as an agency (or any agency like them) did not exist until the Civil War, about fifteen years later than 1850.  Nitroglycerin was not invented until the end of the 1860s, at least twenty years later than this film takes place.  It is unlikely that American bad guys in California in 1850 carried swords at all, let alone carrying them rather than repeating pistols.  That would place Zorro at a considerable weapons disadvantage, since he is primarily a swordsman.

On top of all that, there are many movie-making problems with the film, starting with a poor story and bad writing.  Although Zorro is acrobatic, much of the stunt work (and the editing related to the stunts) seems over the top and completely unrealistic.  This may not be quite as epically bad as, say, The Wild Wild West, but it belongs in the same category.  It had a budget of $75 million, but only made back just over $45 million, so apparently the movie-going public agreed in 2005.  It’s in color, and at 129 minutes it seems much longer than that.

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The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 27, 2014

The Mask of Zorro—Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stuart Wilson, Tony Amendola, Matt Letscher, L.Q. Jones (1998; Dir: Martin Campbell)


This overlong and overcomplicated revisit to the Zorro story differs from the source material (a 1919 novel by Johnston McCulley) in several ways.  One is the title.  Earlier versions with Douglas Fairbanks (1920) and Tyrone Power (1940) shared the title of the novel, The Mark of Zorro, referring to the Z that the sword-bearing bandit often carved into walls, draperies and unfortunate corrupt local officials.  Perhaps this new title emphasizes the transferability of the Zorro identity with the mask and other accoutrements.  In general, the movie is constructed as a series of set pieces and action segments, loosely held together by an erratic story.

This story has not one but two Zorros, one a dashing but untrained young outlaw (Antonio Banderas) and the other an aging former Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) seeking revenge for wrongs now a generation past.  As the movie starts in 1821, the Spanish are taking their leave of Alta California as the Mexicans under Santa Anna take possession of the Mexican realms.  The corrupt Spanish governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) makes one last attempt to capture his nemesis Zorro by excecuting three innocent peasants.  Zorro indeed makes one last appearance and rescues the three but gives away his identity to Montero.  Making a raid on the De la Vega mansion (very computer-generated in appearance), Montera’s men kill Diego’s wife Esperanza; Montero throws Diego into a dungeon and makes off with Diego’s infant daughter Elena to Spain.


Twenty years later, Montero returns, hoping to enlist those dons he had given land grants to join him in a gold-mining enterprise and takeover of California.  Diego escapes from his prison and encounters a drunken outlaw (Banderas) he recognizes as one of two Murrieta brothers who as children had helped Zorro escape during his final adventure.  The other brother, Joaquin Murrieta, has been killed by vicious American Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher), who turns out to be in league with Montero.

Recognizing that his age prevents him from being Zorro still, Diego trains the hot-headed Alejandro Murrieta as a younger Zorro—in swordplay, in manners, in riding and other skills he will need.  His initial foray in the role is nearly disastrous, but through luck and the assistance of the lovely Elena Montero (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he escapes.  Together, Diego and Alejandro plot to discover Montero’s plans and thwart them.

Don Diego de la Vega:  [Indicating the sword Alejandro is holding.]  “Do you know how to use that thing?”
Alejandro Murrieta:  “Yes.  The pointy end goes into the other man.”
Diego de la Vega [Sighs.]:  “This is going to take a lot of work.”


The new Zorro (Antonio Banderas) with his mentor, the old Zorro (Anthony Hopkins).  And Diego de la Vega’s feisty daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  Two of the three leads are Welsh.

Alejandro arrives at the large estate where Montero is hosting a party for the local dons whom he hopes will support his plan.  Diego masquerades as his servant Bernardo.  In the course of the evening, Alejandro engages in a passionate dance with Elena, discovers where Montero is hiding his plans and maps, and is invited to join the larger conspiracy to take California.  Diego also meets Elena without revealing his identity as her father.  Capt. Love thinks he knows who Alejandro is, although the cultured young man bears little resemblance to the hairy outlaw he had been.

Alejandro makes a return visit to the Montero hacienda as Zorro, looking for the map to the gold.  He finds it.  In a stable, he also encounters Elena again, and they engage in swordplay and banter, in which Elena loses most of her clothing while confirming the attraction between them.


At the mine, which is run with slave labor, Capt. Love kills Three-Finger Jack (L.Q. Jones), who had been in the Murrieta brothers’ gang.  Alejandro puts on his Zorro garb and engages Love in battle.  Meanwhile, Diego, who had said he would no longer be engaged in Zorro’s exploits, shows up and fights Montero.  Predictably enough, Diego beats Montero with swords, but Montero cheats and shoots Diego while using Elena for cover.  These acrobatic battles center around a wooden crane for lifting gold out of the canyon where it is mined.  In the end, Alejandro vanquishes Capt. Love, who is crushed by a falling gold wagon which also pulls Montero to his doom.  Zorro and Elena rescue locked-up slaves from a complicated explosion, and Diego dies of his wound, surrounded by his regained family–Elena and Alejandro.

Anthony Hopkins is not convincing as the 35-40-year-old Zorro, but he does fine as Diego de la Vega at 60.  Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones make an enormously attractive couple, although they’re both playing at least ten years younger than their actual ages.  Stuart Wilson is a suitably serpentine villain.  The Capt. Harrison Love character, as he is played by Matt Letscher, is neither interesting nor necessary.  He seems to be a sort of pseudo-Custer character (a vain and venal American military commander with long blond hair) who has arisen sometimes in westerns now that Custer is no longer seen as much of a hero.  (See Barry Pepper in The Lone Ranger for another example.)


A lot of money was spent on this movie, and technically it’s very well done.  There are some nice comedic touches in the dialogue.  Since this doesn’t use much of the traditional Zorro story, it seems to partake more of the episodic nature of the Disney television series from the late 1950s starring Guy Williams—yet another example, perhaps, of a movie driven by nostalgia for a past television series (e.g., The Wild Wild West, Maverick, The Lone Ranger).  One trick is to keep the moviegoer from asking the Indiana Jones question (see the first Indiana Jones movie for one approach to this question):  The essence of Zorro is the use of the sword and perhaps a whip, but, especially by 1840, how much chance does a sword-wielder actually have against firearms?  That’s why the movie almost has to be set earlier.  Zorro’s beautiful black horse Tornado (Toronado?) is said to be a black Andalusian stallion, but horse fanciers claim that he is really a Friesian.  If the Joaquin Murrieta in this movie is intended to be the notorious California outlaw from gold rush times, he is placed about fifteen years too early here; the real Murrieta was killed in 1853, after California had become a state.

The film was a commercial success.  If you don’t look for much coherence to the story, this one works well enough, although its 2005 sequel (also directed by Martin Campbell), The Legend of Zorro, is worse.  The Fairbanks and Power movies from decades earlier are still better as movies, though.  In color, at 136 minutes.


The first Zorro movie (1920, the year after the novel was published), with Douglas Fairbanks in the title role.  And a later (1940) version, with Tyrone Power as the dashing masked bandit avenging wrongs.  The character Zorro was a fictional creation, not an actual historical person.

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