Cast: Douglas Fairbanks (Don Diego Vega/Zorro), Marguerite De La Motte (Lolita Pulido), Robert McKim (Capt. Juan Ramon), Noah Beery, Sr. (Sgt. Gonzales), Charles Hill Mailes (Don Carlos Pulido), Claire McDowell (Dona Catalina Pulido), Snitz Edwards (Cantina/Innkeeper), George Periolat (Governor Alejandro), Walt Whitman (Fra Felipe), Tote Du Crow (Bernardo), Charles Stevens (Indian)
The setting is Old Spanish California in the early 1800's. Oppression rules due to a "licentious" governor and unscrupulous, self-serving soldiers who support this leader.
The first scene is a cantina at night. An unidentified man, with a "Z" cut into his cheek, has everyone's rapt attention as he tells of his encounter with the elusive Zorro. We are told he appears and disappears "like a ghost." Sgt. Gonzales, however, claims he is looking forward to his first encounter with this "Zorro."
The effeminate, handkerchief-toting Don Deigo, lately returned from Spain, comes into the cantina. He "detests swords and bloodshed" and recoils when Gonzales begins swinging his sword around to show how he'll handle Zorro upon their first encounter.
Don Diego leaves, and the discussion of Zorro continues. On a dare, Gonzales hurts one of the natives in the cantina, and, suddenly, Zorro has appeared. With gun in hand, he orders all the men to lay their swords on the floor and get behind the bar except Gonzales. A comical duel ensues with Gonzales, and, he adeptly eludes a last effort by the men to capture him.
Zorro returns to his hideout which is reached through two vine-covered doors leading into the basement of his home. From this, he goes up through a trap door into a secret room. A fake door in a grandfather clock is his means of getting from the secret room to the rest of the house. Of course, Zorro and Don Diego are one and the same. We also learn that the only one who knows his secret is his native servant Bernardo who can hear, but not speak.
Don Diego's father, Don Alberto arrives at the home and chides him severely for his laziness, admonishing that he can at least find a wife. To this end, he has arranged for Don Diego to visit the Pulidos and meet their daughter, Lolita.
The Pulidos are a family of noble blood, but an order by the governor has stripped them of all their wealth except their home. When Don Diego arrives, he continues his effiminate, lazy charade which Lolita finds repulsive, commencing, "He isn't a man he's a fish!"
After inviting the Pulidos to stay at his town house, he leaves. Lolita goes into the garden, and, a few minutes later, Zorro appears kissing her hands and wooing her with words of love. At first she is offended by his brashness, but soon becomes enamoured of him.
The Pulidos, thinking they will win favor with the governor, summon the troops. When the troops arrive, Zorro flees on his horse. Although the troops pursue him, Captain Ramon, whom Lolita said she "fears and hates," remains behind.
Shortly after the troops commence their chase, Zorro appears sitting in the window sill. Just as he and Ramon are about to fight, the soldiers return. Quickly, Zorro throws Lolita a rose, which she clasps to her breast, and he escapes.
The Pulidos arrive to stay at Don Diego's townhouse. One evening while the parents are out, Ramon forces his way past the servant into the home and forces his attentions on Lolita. Zorro arrives, and he and Ramon. Ramon loses and comes away from the confrontation with a "Z" carved on his neck. Zorro orders Ramon to apologize on his knee to Lolita, then throws him out.
The next day, when Don Diego balks at defending Lolita's honor with Ramon, the Pulidos leave and return to their home.
Fray Felipe has been found guilty of swindling a dealer in hides. He is sentenced to 15 lashes with the whip. As he is being whipped in th street, Pulido arrives and puts a stop to it. Ramon warns Pulido that the governor will hear of his actions.
That evening, there is a knock at the door of the cantina. The owner goes outside to see who it is, and there is Zorro on his horse with a gun in hand. He orders the owner to tell the magistrado, who sentenced Fray Felipe to be whipped, to come outside. When he does, Zorro makes two natives tie him,and forces the cantina owner to beat the magistrado with the whip. When the caballeros from the cantina, as well as Ramon and the governor arrive, Zorro flees. The governor urges the caballeros to hunt down Zorro. One comments, "It's adventure, let's do it for sport!"
When the caballeros stop to search Don Alberto's, he urges them to stay for wine. Don Diego excuses himself, but returns in minutes as Zorro. Holding a gun on the men, he gives them a rousing speech reminding them they are noble Californians who should rise up against the oppression all about them. The speech wins them over, and they pledge their support of Zorro.
Meanwhile, we see all three of the Pulidos being thrown in jail. But, just before dawn, Zorro and a large contingent of masked caballeros arrive and release the Pulidos. Zorro tells the caballeros to take the Pulidos to Don Alberto's while he "remains in the rear to draw off pursuit." Ramon has somehow disguised himself as one o f the caballeros, and, at an opportune moment, he kidnaps Lolita away from the men and her parents.
Zorro leads the pursuing soldiers on a merry chase, leaving his sword stuck in a tree with a note that he is headed to the village for breakfast. "Try to catch me!" it reads.
In the village, Zorro eludes his pursuers by swinging from a rope to a second story balcony, masquerading as a friar, scaling walls and scurrying along roofs, hiding in a haystack and generally out riding, running, and jumping his pursuers.
As he is eating breakfast, however, he sees Ramon coming into town with Lolita his captive. Zorro knocks Ramon from his horse and steals Lolita away to his secret entrance to the house. As soldiers pour into the house, he leaves Lolita in the secret room, exits through the door on the grandfather clock and goes downstairs as Don Diego.
As the soldier search the house, Lolita curiously looks out the door on the grandfather clock but fails to shut it properly. The soldiers discover her and the secret room.
As they bring her out onto the balcony overlooking the main room of the house, Don Diego tells Ramon, "I protest!" Ramon puts his hand in Don Diego's face and shoves him backward. "You couldn't win this woman for yourself," Ramon says to Don Diego, "and your house is a rendezvous for her and her bandit lover!"
Don Diego, or rather Zorro, has had enough. He slaps Ramon, wrestles him to the ground, pulls back his collar and reveals the "Z" that he carved on his neck earlier. He challenges Ramon to a swordfight. Ramon, thinking he is fighting Don Diego, readily agrees. Almost immediately, Don Diego/Zorro slashes a "Z" on Ramon's forehead. Suddenly, his true identity becomes apparent to everyone Gonzales, the governor, the soldiers, the caballeros, Don Alberto, and Lolita all exclaim, "Zorro!"
The duel is a brief as Zorro makes short work of Ramon. Now, with the pledged support of the cabelleros, as well as Gonzales and his soldiers, Don Diego/Zorro orders the governor to abdicate and take Ramon with him.
He throws his sword up and sticks it high into the wall, leaps to the balcony where Lolita is with a little help from the caballeros, and ends the adventure with a kiss.
Most historians will claim that Douglas Fairbanks' three greatest films are "The Three Musketeers," "The Thief of Bagdad," and "Robin Hood." However, I beg to differ. "The Mark of Zorro" is the best.
Why? Because, without a doubt, it is the most "fun" film to watch of anything Doug made. Sure, the others have larger sets, more spectacle and longer and more involved stories, but "The Mark of Zorro" isn't as serious or down-to-earth as the others. The character of Zorro is our super hero. He performs feats that are beyond what we would expect any human being to be capable of, but not quite to the point of unbelievable.
Who else could come into a cantina and singlehandedly hold off a dozen or more men while carrying on a swordfight with one of them? Who else could elude a entire posse of men in a small village daring them to catch him and outwitting them at every turn? And isn't is somewhat more than human to keep popping up at the very moment a crisis arises?
I mentioned that all of the elements come together for a "fun" film. What are those elements? There is the theme of the strong oppressing the weak, yet, in the end, the weak wins, a theme that will always bring cheers from audiences. There is right versus wrong, with right ultimately triumphant.
There is a unique love story in that we have a love triangle with only two people!!! Lolita is beautiful and charming. Zorro is handsome and dashing. We love that! Don Diego's spineless character would not be to our liking, except we know he is Zorro. The fun comes in trying to guess when and how Lolita will find out!
There is a bad guy, and a superbly evil one at that. He doesn't do a whole lot that's terrible, but what he does is the ultimate crime he's mean to our heroine! For that, we want blood!
Then there's a secret identity, a trap door, a secret room, a "cover" to keep anyone from learning the secret.
But let's don't forget the trademark of any Douglas Fairbanks film plenty of action! There are chases, fancy horseback riding, leaping, jumping, scaling walls, sword fights, and more!
And through it all, there is comedy not enough so the film would be labeled a comedy, but enough that the story never gets heavy-handed or overly dramatic. Doug deserves a lot of credit for this, too. Many films include a character who provides the "comic relief" while the star plays his role "straight." Doug didn't need that. He could play the dramatic, romantic lead and provide the comedy touches, too.
"The Mark of Zorro" is based on a serialized story found in All-Story Weekly entitled "The Curse of Capistrano" by Johnston McCulley. Stories differ as to how it came to Doug's attention. Mary Pickford claims she alerted him to the story, while his neice says that her father, who is Doug's brother, gave it to him. Stunt man Richard Talmadge says Doug's friend and character actor in many of his films, Charles Stevens, gave him the story.
Booten Herndon claims in his book Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1977) that Doug was forced to try another type of characterization because his previous pictures were "too much alike" and exhibitors had been complaining that he "failed to develop sufficient love interest" in his films.
For whatever reason, the film was made quickly and inexpensively. Doug immediately went back to his old formula with "The Nut,"not anticipating the huge success "The Mark of Zorro" would be with audiences. For one thing, he knew that costume pictures were not very popular at the moment and felt he was taking a terrible chance with the movie anyway. However, upon general release, the film was an immediate hit. It opened at the Capital Theatre in New York, the world's largest theatre, and broke all records there.
Although it could be said that "The Nut" was the last of the "old Doug" to ever grace the movie screens, Joe Franklin in Classics of the Silent Screen (Citadel Press, 1959) believes one of the reasons for the success of "The Mark of Zorro" was because is was the "old Doug." He said, "'The Mark of Zorro' remains one of the best of Doug's cloak-and-sword adventures because it is essentially a product of the old Doug."
Marguerite De La Motte, Robert McKim and Noah Beery,Sr., deserve much credit for the success of the movie, too. De La Motte brought a beauty and girlish charm to the role that made her the perfect object of Zorro's flowery-worded wooing. The scene in the Pulido's garden when she first meets Zorro is a delight. She is afraid of this "bandit" at first, but is soon charmed into submission and maybe a little excited by the danger of such a liaison.
McKim made his mark in silent films as a villain, and he couldn't have been any better than he was in "The Mark of Zorro." His braggadocio angers us, his mistreatment of Lolita instills a desire to make him "pay" for his misdeeds. So, when Zorro defeats him (actually twice in the movie), we are tempted to cheer!
Beery as Sgt. Gonzales, too, is one of Zorro's foes, but, we do not take him seriously, though, and that is good. It is unlikely that two villains of the type McKim played would be as effective as the one on which we can unload all our frustrations. Beery boasts of what he willdo to Zorro, too, but we know from the beginning that he poses no serious threat to Zorro's well-being. Their encounter in the cantina is more sword "play" than sword "fight." In the end, we are not surprised when Beery's character sides with Zorro.
Many theories have been proposed concerning the success of "The Mark of Zorro" and Doug's subsequent costume pictures. One claims that the Doug of the costume pictures is the same Doug of the earlier comedies with one major exception this Doug was a "lover," and credit to that change is somehow attributed to his marriage to Mary Pickford. Another theory claims that post-war audiences needed escapism, something that swept them away from the world in which they lived to a beautiful, romantic, gay world which doesn't really exist anywhere. Therefore, the timing was just right for "Zorro."
For whatever, the reason, "The Mark of Zorro" brought about a total change in Doug's movie-making and one that led to some of the most enduring cinematic masterpieces of all time, yet, I still maintain, "The Mark of Zorro" is the best of 'em all!
One final observation keep in mind that Doug was the first to bring some of these famous literary characters to the screen Zorro, D'Artagnan, Robin Hood, the Thief of Bagdad. Being the first meant you had to interpret the "visual" personification of a character who had heretofore, only been presented in written form. Douglas Fairbanks set the standard by which all subsequent performances are based. And the amazing thing is that, in all these years hence, no one has improved on any of them!
Joe Franklin . . .
"'The Mark of Zorro' remains one of the best of Doug's cloak-and-sword adventures because it is essentially a product of the old Doug. It has the zip and pace of his early films, is fair short (only seven reels), and doesn't allow spectacle and décor to swamp the action. It's a fairly small-scale film. It probably cost only a quarter as much as its sequel, 'Don Q, Son of Zorro,' and it's several times as good." (Classic of the Silent Screen, Citadel Press, 1959)
Booten Herndon . . .
"In some respects Fairbanks plays his familiar character, but instead of changing from the usual unlikely hero as the story develops, he is Zorro from the beginning , playing the dual role with mask and sword. And, instead of the boy next door in peaceful America, Doug is Don Diego Vega in the colorful, corrupt, colonial California of the early 1800's. Instead of just decking a few bad guys with his fists, he fights and kills with a sword. Instead of an appealing young fellow in a comedic boy-girl plot, he is, as the masked Zorro, a sizzling lover with a beautiful heroine, Marguerite de la Motte, with whom the matinee ladies could identify. True, in the truncated final love scene, Fairbanks, unmasked, holds her as though she had halitosis, but that's all right, too Zorro is fine for a fantasy but you wouldn't want to live with him."
Eileen Whitfield . . .
" . . . when Fairbanks duels atop a mantelpiece, he looks as if he migh launch himself into the air a masked Peter Pan with a nicotine habit." (Pickford, the Woman Who Made Hollywood, The University of Kentucky Press, 1997)
copyright 1998 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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