The Mark of Zorro (1920)
Douglas Fairbanks is a swashbuckling hero in this first adaptation of the famous novel “The Curse of Capistrano,” published just one year before. Generally seen as the beginning of a new direction in his career, the movie shows us how far cinematic techniques come since his start in 1915 as well.
The movie begins with intertitles that establish what might be Doug’s ideological stance – that oppressive systems breed their own downfall by causing heroic men to become freedom fighters in the cause of the people. Zorro is presented as such a man, and we see a soldier with a “Z-” shaped scar commiserating with his fellows in a bar. We learn that Zorro punished him for mistreating a local Native American, but also that the situation for the rich is not much better as the Governor imposes such high taxes on Don Carlos, father of Lolita Pulido (Marguerite de le Motte), that he is doomed to lose his lands. We return to the bar, where Sergeant Gonzales (Noah Beery) rails against Zorro and boasts of his prowess with the sword. He insults, but accepts free drinks from Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks), a foppish, sickly noble. After he leaves, of course, Zorro comes in and defeats Gonzales in a duel, and fights off all of the other soldiers as well, humiliating them and generally wrecking the place.
We see Zorro go home and turn into mild-mannered Don Diego, who then argues with his father, who thinks he has been wasting his time since returning from school in Spain and has no idea he is secretly a manly man. He insists that his son get married, at least, and arranges for him to meet Lolita the next day. Don Diego does his worst as an effete snob that no one would want to marry, but he returns in Zorro disguise to woo her, and arranges for her family to spend time at his richly-appointed town house. When the soldiers arrive to arrest him, he escapes, but we learn that their leader, the vile Captain Ramon (Robert McKim) has designs on Lolita as well.
The visit of the Pulidos to Don Diego’s home provides the next opportunity for Ramon to menace Lolita, as he and her parents are conveniently away, and Ramon holds the power to forgive the governor’s crushing taxes. Of course, Zorro arrives in time to save her honor, and she gives him the kiss that Ramon meant to steal. When Don Diego comes home, he puts on a big show of being too fatigued to take action to avenge Lolita’s honor.
Now the governor comes to visit the area, and insists that action be taken against rebellious locals as well as Zorro. When he orders a whipping for Father Felipe, an innocent priest, Don Carlos intervenes and stops the punishment, resulting in his imprisonment, and that of his family. Don Diego pens a call to arms for the local caballeros, and uses the distraction of a night ride by Zorro to give his servant a chance to distribute them at the wealthy homes. As Zorro, he gives a rousing speech when they gather at his father’s home to in search of the “bandit,” though his father believes him to be a coward in reality. Now masked as well, the caballeros ride to the rescue of the Pulidos, and Zorro breaks open the jail to free them. While they ride back, however, Captain Ramon is able to disguise himself as one of them and grab Lolita, taking her into his power. Zorro spends a good deal of time swinging from ropes and defeating soldiers in single combat, then finally frees Lolita from him. He reveals his identity and she and his father are thrilled. The movie ends with the two lovers kissing behind a handkerchief.
This movie gets a lot of credit for being the point where Fairbanks “reimagined” his career from physical comedy to action star, though really the change is less dramatic than that suggests. The humor of Doug’s earlier movies often used a similar dynamic of proving that an apparent weakling could become heroic when given the chance and exposed to the proper elements. Zorro as portrayed here is as full of pep and joie de vivre as any of Doug’s other characters, while Don Diego is just a more exaggerated version of his character from “The Mollycoddle.” It is true that for the remainder of his career, he tended more toward costume adventures set in the romantic past, and less toward modern settings.
It’s also significant that this was the first movie produced for the new United Artists studio, which Fairbanks had formed along with wife Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith the year before. All of them were in contracts that prevented them from starting right away on making movies for their new project, but it is very fortunate that this film was a tremendous hit that put the studio on good financial footing at a time when it was far from certain that it would succeed.
The movie also succeeds today, as one of the movies from this period that feels modern in pacing, editing, and camera work. Director Fred Niblo would go on to be credited as director of “Ben Hur,” though that’s a complicated and messy tale, and he also directed Fairbanks in “The Three Musketeers” and Rudolph Valentino in “Blood and Sand.” Here, his sense of where to put the camera in action scenes is remarkable. A scene that stood out to me is the opening in the bar, which eats up a good fifteen or so minutes in a single setting, with Doug leaping from chandeliers, turning over tables, and slashing out “Z’s” right and left. It manages to be visually interesting, not least because Niblo doesn’t hesitate to use multiple camera setups for a single action. Think back to movies like “Fantomas,” where a scene in a single room usually meant a scene in a single shot. Even “The Great Train Robbery,” a movie which still retains some ability to thrill with its cross-cutting and speedy editing, doesn’t cut in the middle of a fight so that we can see the faces of each combatant from the perspective of the other. With “The Mark of Zorro” we’re starting to see that emerge.
In all, this movie is well worth seeing, both historically in terms of what it developed, and in terms of its entertainment value as it stands up today.
Director: Fred Niblo
Camera: William C. McGann, Harris Thorpe
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery, Robert McKim, Charles Hill Mailes, Claire McDowell, Tote Du Crow, Charles Stevens
Run Time: 1 Hr, 46 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).