The Zorro character was introduced in the 1919 serialized story, “The Curse of Capistrano”, written by Johnston McCulley, and was published in All-Stories Weekly, the same magazine that first published Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan of the Apes” and “John Carter: Warlord of Mars”. Zorro was partly the inspiration for Batman. (Parenthetically, in DC comics, Bruce Wayne and his parents were coming out of a theater after seeing a film version of Zorro when his parents were killed.)
The story has been adapted several times. The first time was a silent film version in 1920, starring the cinema’s first-ever action star Douglas Fairbanks as the title character. However, we’ll skip any silent films for now (We’ll deal with those at another time.) The most recent was The Mask of Zorro (1998) with Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones and it’s 2005 sequel.
By far, the most famous version of the Zorro story was The Mark of Zorro (1940) starring Tyrone Power, who was one of the most popular leading men of his era. This version was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who also directed the classic pre-code version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931) starring Frederick March, who was the first person to win the Oscar for Best Actor in a horror film role. (He remained the only one until Anthony Hopkins won for Silence of the Lambs in 1991.) The Mark of Zorro was named to the National Film Registry in 2009 by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”, to be preserved for all time. It has an impressive 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The plot of the 1940 version: It takes place in early 19th century California, during Mexican rule. Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) is in Spain training to be a soldier. He gets called back home to California by his wealthy father. Despite being one of the best swordsman in Spain, he pretends to be a wimpy, effeminate metrosexual. This annoys his macho father Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love), a rich ranchero and former Alcade (a sort of Mayor) of Spanish California.
Don Diego quickly becomes enraged at the way the poor and middle-class people are being mistreated by the corrupt new Alcalde, Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), who had forced Diego’s father out the job. Unable to stand by and watch the abuse, Diego adopts the masked identity of El Zorro (“The Fox”), a sword-swinging, vigilante outlaw dressed entirely in black. Zorro becomes the defender of the common people, and starts to inspire hope in the population.
Diego meets the Alcalde’s sweet, beautiful young niece, Lolita (Linda Darnell), whom he falls in love with at first sight. Lolita is in love with the heroic Zorro but is initially disgusted by his wimpy civilian identity of Diego. After dancing with Diego at a party, she learns Diego and Zorro are one-in-the-same. Diego is also assisted by the local padre Father Felipe (Eugene Pallette).
As part of his plan, Diego flirts with the Alcalde’s wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard), filling her head with tales of Madrid’s grandiose, high-class social culture and raising her desire to move there, while simultaneously scaring the hell out of Alcalde Luis using his Zorro identity. This double strategy is meant to induce Luis decide to quit and return to Spain, which would allow Diego’s honest father to resume the post of Alcalde.
In both his identities, Diego has to contend with the governor’s formidable henchman, Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), who is in charge of the military guards. Captain Pasquale encourages the Alcalde to be more corrupt. The Captain not only hunts the vigilante Zorro; he also competes with Diego for the hand of Lolita. Eventually, Diego and the Captain face off in a spirited sword duel-to-the-death, which Zorro wins. Ultimately, the revolt Zorro encouraged finally happens, forcing a regime change, and Luis leaves the country, allowing honorable Don Alejandro to resume the position of Alcalde. Diego can now hang-up his sword and marry Lolita.
The remake, much like the original film, has quite a lot of humor and fun swordplay. The 1998 version, called The Mask of Zorro, was described by Roger Ebert as “A reminder of the time when stunts and special effects were integrated into stories, rather than the other way around.” The Mask of Zorro was directed by Martin Campbell, who is known for directing the Bond films Goldeneye and Casino Royale. In a way, this movie is like 007 on a horse with a sword. It has an 83% Rotten Tomato rating.
The plot of the remake: It starts in 1821, with Don Diego De La Vega (Anthony Hopkins) already active as Zorro, fighting against the Spanish in the Mexican War of Independence. Evil Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), the local governor learns of Vega’s alter-ego and arrests him in his home. Vega’s wife is killed during the arrest. Montero locks up Vega and takes Vega’s baby daughter Eléna back to Spain with him. Twenty years later, Montero returns to California as a civilian businessman, along with a grown Eléna (Catherine Zeta Jones), who has blossomed into a gorgeous woman. Coincidentally, Montero’s return to California coincides with Vega’s escape from prison. Vega meets a roguish thief named Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas). Years earlier, when Alejandro was a little boy, he’d met Zorro. Vega thinks its fate that the two of them should meet again now, and decides to make Alejandro his protégé, training him to be the new Zorro. Alejandro agrees to this because he wants to get revenge on Montero’s main-henchmen Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher), who killed Alejandro’s brother.
Vega instructs Alejandro to gain Montero’s trust by posing as visiting nobleman. Vega plays his servant ‘Bernardo’. They attend a party at Montero’s hacienda, where Alejandro meets and dances with Eléna. Alejandro is invited to a secret meeting, along with several other noblemen. Montero has a plan to retake California for the rich Dons by buying it from General Santa Anna of Spain, who desperately needs money to finance a war with the USA.
Montero has a secret gold mine he calls “El Dorado“, where peasants are used as slave labor. Montero plans to use the gold mined there to purchase California from Santa Anna. Vega uses this opportunity to get closer to his daughter Eléna. Montero had never told Eléna who her real parents were. Vega sends Zorro to steal Montero’s map of the gold mine, leading to a swordfight between Zorro and Montero’s henchmen Love, as well as the guards at the hacienda. Zorro escapes, encountering Eléna on route, and sharing a passionate kiss with her before fleeing.
Montero becomes afraid of what Santa Anna will do in retribution if he discovers that he is being paid with gold from land Santa Anna actually owns. (Montero is paying him with his own gold.) Montero therefore decides to destroy the mine and kill all the workers. Vega tells Alejandro to go save the workers while Vega goes to reclaim his daughter. Vega faces Montero at the hacienda and reveals his identity, but Montero captures him by threatening Eléna. As he is taken away, Vega says something that convinces Elena he is her father. She frees Vega, while Zorro confronts Love and Montero at the mine. Eléna joins Zorro in trying to free the workers before the explosives go off. Vega is fatally wounded but in his last moments, he passes on the mantle of Zorro, and gives his blessings for Alejandro to marry Eléna. The bad guys are defeated and Zorro marries Elena.
There are similar scenes in both films. For instance, both movies have a scene where Zorro is hiding in a church from soldiers and meets Elena. She mistakes him for a Priest, and confesses some very private things to him, which Zorro himself finds a turn-on. The leading men in both films have very good chemistry with their leading ladies. Power & Darnell, and Banderas & Jones make good screen pairings with nice rapports. The main difference is that the Power/Darnell relationship comes across as more romantic and emotional, whereas the Banderas/Jones relationship is more simmering with sexual passion. Both women were good in their supporting roles. Darnell is demure and innocent, while Jones is much sexier in her ‘Latin-spitfire-with-the-heaving-bosom’ style.
The biggest difference in the two films is that Banderas plays a second Zorro, not the first. Anthony Hopkins is seen as Zorro in the opening minutes of the film, and for the rest of the movie, he acts as a mentor for the new Zorro. The whole subplot about his daughter is a new aspect to the Zorro mythos and not taken from any earlier film or the 1919 literary serial. Hopkins does do a good job in bringing pathos and sympathy to the role.
The main villains—Quintero and Montero—are both mediocre. The villain in the original is more cowardly, whereas the villain in the remake is more of a generic ‘I’m-so-evil’ trope. Similarly, Letscher is not very memorable as Captain Love. However, the henchmen Captain Pasquale in the 1940 version is outstanding. Played by the always entertaining Basil Rathbone—best known for playing Sherlock Holmes in 14 films—Captain Pasquale is sinister, elegant and intimidating. Rathbone himself was a master-fencing champ and was always superb playing a sword-wielding villain. Rathbone often played villains (In films like The Adventures of Robin Hood) and never failed to deliver a malevolent performance.
As to who makes the better Zorro, the nod has to go to Power. Tyrone Power was one of the best romantic swashbuckling stars of the 30s and 40s. He plays Diego/Zorro with more charm and class than Banderas, who focuses more on the comical aspects of the character, despite the fact that his version of Zorro has a more personal motive for hating the villains. Banderas isn’t bad but it’s hard to replace the suave Tyrone Power.
So which one is better? The 1940 version gets the win. There’s nothing wrong with the remake, which is, as Ebert pointed out, “A display of traditional movie craftsmanship, especially at the level of the screenplay, which respects the characters and story and doesn’t simply use them for dialogue breaks between action sequences”. However, the original film was described in the New York Times as having “some highly fantastic fights” and they also wrote, “It bounds along at a lively, exciting clip, the way all extravagant fictions should. It is played by an excellent cast of expansive actors, including J. Edward Bromberg, Gale Sondergaard, and, of course, Mr. Rathbone. And it has the proper look of spectacle.”
At the end of the day, its’ the climactic fight scene that really makes this film a classic. The flashy sword battle near the end where Zorro and the Captain clash in a duel to the death is a memorable, fun and well-choreographed one-on-one fight which delivers some excellent swordplay by both men. (Both actors did their own sword work.) This scene alone raises it above the remake. Both versions are fun adventures but the 1940 flick stands just a sword length taller than the remake.
So that’s all for this week’s look at cinematic remakes. We’ll be back next week to dissect another remade movie. Until then, please feel free to look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.