The Rear-View Mirror: The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

In our current times, Douglas Fairbanks is best known for his swashbuckling films. Chances are that one of your first silents was a film he made. But at the time, making The Mark of Zorro was quite the risk, for an actor best known for light comedy work and westerns. Especially since he was also co-founding United Artists, with such luminaries as Chaplin, Pickford and Griffith. If audiences wouldn’t accept Fairbanks’ re-branding, his career might very well fail. The decision for his first more meaty role to be Zorro, then, was an inspired one. He gets to show off his comedic chops, as well as his incredible athleticism.

The story is a relatively simple one. By day he is Don Diego Vega. A man so limp, cowardly and tired that he can hardly be bothered to drag himself to the inn. By night he is Zorro. Masked defender of the poor and the pious. With this double life, he has neither the time nor the inclination to get married. However, his father – who knows nothing of his masked defender alias – insists. And it just so happens that the family of Don Carlos Pulidos lost the support of the licentious governor, are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and have a beautiful young daughter Lolita (Marguerite De La Motte). And Don Diego is rich. Very rich. In an obvious effort to deter her, he… er … makes a puppet out of a handkerchief? Regardless of this rather extraordinary behaviour, Lolita’s family urge her to acquiesce to a proposal from this “fish”, as she calls him.

Another ardent suitor is the nefarious Captain Ramon (Robert McKim), our hero’s nemesis. He is rather more forceful in his very unwelcome advances: and is – of course – brought to heel by Zorro, who rescues the maiden. The spirited Lolita has, as you will have guessed by now, fallen for the gallant masked man. Little does she realise his alter ego is Don Diego! Zorro, meanwhile, has had just about enough of the various iniquities of the corrupt administration. He gathers the caballeros around him, and makes a rip-roaring speech after which they pledge themselves to his cause. And it will not be much of a spoiler to tell you that, yes, in the end Zorro is reavealed amid cries of “Zorro, it’s Zorro!”, Don Diego and Lolita kiss: and Justice is served.

This summary makes the film sound quaint. But as is so often the case with the films I write about in this space, the plot is hardly the point. Fairbanks is so athletic, he seems to float. There is an exhilaration to his movements, which makes every improbable stunt, every impossible jump transcend the material. The last 15 minutes or so are a joy to behold. It features a high-jump over a donkey, leaping from building to building, climbing a chapel, a rather nifty stunt featuring a cart; and breakfast. Take that, The Matrix.

With this film, Fairbanks invented not only the entire character of Zorro as we know him now, the half-mask, the black outfit, the “Z” that is his trademark, to name but a few – he even has the requisite secret lair –, but the very idea of the hero with a secret identity. Batman and Superman are direct descendants. You could therefore argue this is the birth of the superhero movie.

The reason to see it, however, is not necessarily these many innovations. The reason to see it, is that it is just great fun. However twee Fairbanks’ comedy may seem now, the stunts are just out of this world. I challenge, without trepidation, the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Mission Impossible, Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron. Nothing except possibly the scintillating Hong-Kong cinema of the 70’s and its successors, will beat it for sheer balletic grace.

But if that doesn’t convince you: see it just to watch how, a 100 years ago, the superhero genre we love was born.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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