The Mark Of Zorro
Director Rouben Mamoulian Stars Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone, Linda Darnell USA 1940 Language English (with a tiny bit of Spanish) 1hr 34mins Black & white
The definitive sound-era Zorro
Let’s talk about two rich young men who don masks and capes to do what they consider good. One is the muscle-bound, scowling vigilante of Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga. The other is the smiling, witty, Californian aristocrat of Rouben Mamoulian’s delightful1940 swashbuckler. Some people have argued that Nolan brought a new maturity to the masked-avenger movie. I’d suggest the exact opposite: Nolan’s films are perfectly pitched at moody 16 and 17-year-olds, the kind who think they are superior to their parents because they have realised just how dark and cruel the world is, the kind of teen bores who have made humourless doom mongers like Pink Floyd and Radiohead perpetual residents in the album charts.
I’m not sure that The Mark Of Zorro has anything significant to say about politics or psychology, but then neither does The Dark Knight Rises. What it has instead are those now terribly neglected cinematic elements, charm and lightness of touch that are better appreciated as you stop taking yourself so damn seriously. David Thomson says Mamoulian ‘managed to convey the impression of Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone dancing to an unheard score.’ He’s not wrong.
This is your core Zorro tale, loosely based on the original 1919 story, The Curse Of Capistrano. Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power, whose real name was… Tyrone Power! How cool is that?) returns to early-19th century Los Angeles from military academy in Madrid to find that his father has been booted out as the alcalde (mayor, although the word is never translated) and replaced the brutal and corrupt Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), in an uneasy partnership with the scheming Capitan Esteban Pasquale (Rathbone).
Discovering that Don Alejandro Vega and his landowner chums are doing nothing effective to stop Quintero and Esteban taxing the peasants into penury, Diego – who the audience knows is a nifty swordsman and rider – starts exaggerating the Madrid dandy side of his personality (‘I love the shimmer of satin and silk, the delicate matching of one shade against another’). Meanwhile, a masked bandit signing himself Zorro launches his career with a series of daring, attention-grabbing attacks on Quintero and his regime. The film holds off for a while admitting the connection between these two things.
So how does Mamoulian go about telling the story? For one thing, he keeps it simple. There are very few significant characters in this film – Zorro has no sidekick, for instance, nor even a named horse. We don’t see Diego deciding to become Zorro, nor learn why he chose the disguise or the identity. Even the scene in which Diego dances with Quintero’s hot niece Lolita (Linda Darnell) and she realises that under the guise of perfume-sniffing fop lies the heart of real man, happens at a small dinner party rather than a big ball. And there’s no complex conspiracy, either – the bad guys are simply ruthless and greedy.
Zorro, of course, is both a fighter and a lover, and Mamoulian gets the balance right – just when you think it’s been a bit too long since we had a clash of swords, he wraps the film up with two terrific set pieces. He’s aided by a flawless cast – Power was absolutely in his element here, at home with all aspects of Don Diego’s character, including the fact that he’s a little too cocky, a little out of his depth and desperate to share the truth of his hidden identity. Basil Rathbone is terrific as cruel, insecure Esteban, and Eugene Pallette – great in classic screwball comedies such as My Man Godfrey and The Lady Eve – is excellent as Fray Felipe, the portly radical cleric.
It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s got great fencing scenes (and admittedly pretty iffy politics…) It’s a joy.
Click here for a splendid 1940 review from The New York Times