The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Feature Article Film Review

THE MARK OF ZORRO

Release Date: 27 November, 1920

Studio: United Artists

Director: Fred Niblo

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite DeLaMotte

Special Notes: Great American Films, 1911-1920

This film has been selected to our list of Great American Films, 1911-1920, which focuses on obscure and under-appreciated American film masterpieces.

Synopsis

The film opens with the word "Oppression" and the statement that oppression breeds a champion of the oppressed. Oppression has crept into early 19th century California, and a masked rider has appeared to protect the oppressed and punish the wicked, leaving "The Mark of Zorro" on his victims. The scene opens on a 'Z' carved on the face of a soldier. In the cantina, this soldier and others discuss Zorro, their masked nemesis. The scenes shift rapidly from the greedy and arrogant Governor, vowing to eliminate Zorro, to the hut of a native who says that Zorro is their only friend, to the hacienda of Don Carlos Pulido, who the governor has stripped of everything except his house.

Back in the cantina, Sergeant Gonzales swaggers in and verbally threatens Zorro. A knock on the door is followed by the entrance of Don Diego Vega, lately home from Spain. Don Diego, loose limbed and slouchy, yawns frequently. He drinks wine with the soldiers and leaves. His departure is followed by another knock, and a messenger enters and posts a reward for the capture of Zorro. Gonzales swaggers some more and vows to have the reward. Nobody knows who Zorro is or where he comes from, but the soldier says that if you abuse a native or a priest, Zorro will appear. To test this statement, Gonzales attacks a native; presto, Zorro enters through a window. As he holds off the soldiers with a gun, Zorro carries on a comical sword fight with Gonzales. Before exiting through the window, he vows justice for all and punishment for the oppressors of the helpless. Zorro rides to his hacienda and enters through a secret door. Removing his mask, he reveals himself as Don Diego Vega. A few minutes later, his father visits and chides Don Diego for his listlessness. He orders Don Diego to pay his addresses to Lolita, the daughter of Don Pulido.

The next day Don Diego visits the Pulido hacienda. He offends Lolita with his yawns and careless attitude. Before leaving, he invites the Pulidos to stay at his town house. Lolita tells her parents that he is a fish. Ten minutes later, Lolita is sitting in the garden when Zorro arrives to woo her with compliments and poetry. Lolita's parents, hoping to gain favor with the governor, notify the military that Zorro is in their garden. Captain Ramon and the troopers soon arrive looking for him. Lolita tells Zorro that she hates and fears Captain Ramon. Zorro reassures her of his protection, then escapes. Ten minutes later, the troopers meet Don Diego lolling in his carriage; he laughs at Sergeant Gonzales's futile hunt for Zorro.

The Pulido family visits Don Diego's house. While her parents are away, Captain Ramon forces himself on Lolita. Zorro arrives to defend her, and during a duel with Ramon, carves a 'Z' in his neck. Lolita thanks Zorro by kissing him. When Don Diego comes home the next day, the family tells him about Captain Ramon's insult to Lolita. Her father says it is a matter of the sword, but Don Diego yawns and says he is fatigued. As they turn their backs on him, he grins. Lolita refuses his marriage proposal.

The governor arrives in the village to personally pursue Zorro. After Don Pulido stops the lashing of an elderly friar who spoke out against oppression, he and his family are accused of treason and jailed. When Zorro has the magistrate lashed in retaliation, Captain Ramon and the governor turn out the troopers to hunt him. The caballeros, members of the upper class, join the hunt for the sport. They suspend the hunt when Don Diego's father invites them into his hacienda for refreshments. Zorro appears and exhorts the caballeros to fight for justice and to oppose the oppression of the poor and helpless. The caballeros draw their swords and pledge their assistance. The caballeros free the Pulido family, but Captain Ramon, who has learned their plans, kidnaps Lolita as they ride to safety. To aid the escape of the Pulido family, Zorro has distracted the soldiers and kept them busy chasing him all over the village. He sees Lolita with Captain Ramon and rescues her. He takes her to Don Diego's town house.

The governor, Captain Ramon, Sergeant Gonzales and a few troopers ignore Don Diego's protests and search his house for Zorro and Lolita. They only find Lolita. Don Diego, who is waiting for the caballeros, reveals himself when he attacks Capt Ramon and uncovers the 'Z' on his neck. As the caballeros arrive, he carves a 'Z' on Ramon's forehead. Everyone realizes that Don Diego is Zorro. The governor is forced to abdicate and leave California, taking Captain Ramon with him. Sergeant Gonzales and his troopers cheer Don Diego. Diego throws his sword into the ceiling until he needs it again. With some help from his friends, he leaps to the balcony where Lolita is waiting to kiss him.

Discussion

This film, Fairbanks' first costume picture, begins the transition of his films from contemporary settings to period settings. His modern American youth who gets into and out of scrapes is replaced by a heroic swashbuckler who fights for justice. Fairbanks' athleticism is still prominently featured, but with greater emphasis on escaping dangerous situations. The film is fast paced and frequently amusing. The opening scene in the cantina sets the story, introduces Zorro, and allows Fairbanks an initial display of athleticism and swordplay. Sergeant Gonzales is a swaggering buffoon who lacks the wit and the skill to compete with Zorro. Zorro does not respect Gonzales and laughs at him, but does not treat him as a source of oppression. His 'Z' is carved only into the seat of Gonzales' pants. However, he cuts the 'Z' into the neck and the forehead of the much more villainous Captain Ramon.

The film is derived from "The Curse of Capistrano," written by Johnston McCulley and serialized in the magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919. Zorro, a romantic hero with mask and sword, quickly became popular and has been featured in many films, books, and other media from his introduction to the present time. Fairbanks made a sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro [1925], in which Zorro's sword is retrieved from the ceiling and used by Don Q (Don Cesar de Vega), the son of Zorro.

The Mark of Zorro had other legacies beyond the initial film introduction of the Zorro character. The film's setting and decor depicts a stylized version of Spanish California. By 1920, filmmakers had developed cinematic methods that cued viewers to the setting, mood, time and location in the picture. An article called "The Mark of Zorro, Silent Film's Impact on 1920s Architecture in Los Angeles," published in 2007 in the magazine California History discusses the impact of silent films on architectural styles in the 1920s. The style of silent films such as The Mark of Zorro strongly influenced period revival house styles of the 1920s. Some houses in modern-day Los Angeles still display many of these styles.