The Mark of Zorro (1940)
The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Genre: Adventure Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.

Release Date: November 8th, 1940 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Rouben Mamoulian Actors: Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone, Eugene Pallette, Gale Sondergaard, J. Edward Bromberg, Montagu Love, Janet Beecher

 


 

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t begins in Madrid, when the Spanish Empire encompassed the globe – and young blades were taught the fine and fashionable art of killing. Whether on foot or on horseback, soldiers are ceaselessly trained, with Californian Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) topping the bunch, continuously challenged by every up-and-coming swordsman to prove themselves. But when Diego’s father summons him home to Los Angeles, he’s certain that his days of combat are over; after all, back where he’s from, one can only raise fat children and watch vineyards grow.

Yet when he arrives, the peons express petrifying fear of his father’s title. It would seem that the alcalde (or municipal magistrate), his Excellency, rules by cruelty and menace. However, due to age, Diego’s father Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love) has actually been forced out of office, replaced by the merciless Don Luis B. Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg). What was once a peaceful existence between leaders and workers is now an oppressive arrangement of whip-brandishing tax collectors and tortured vassals. What the district desperately needs is an avenging angel, as suggested by Friar Felipe (Eugene Pallette), to lead a caballero revolt against the pervasive injustice – perhaps someone with exceptional swordsmanship, whose identity can be shrouded by a black mask and hat.

With Diego’s exaggerated, foppish whims, he already possesses the perfect cover to assume the secret identity of Zorro, a Robin Hood-like bandit intent on righting all the wrongs of the corrupt establishment. Indeed, complete with his own priest sidekick; lovely damsel occasionally in distress (Linda Darnell as Lolita Quintero), who happens to be in the care of his enemy; and an antagonistic military aide anxious to hunt him down (Basil Rathbone as Captain Esteban Pasquale), Zorro is undoubtedly the Spanish equivalent to the legendary outlaw of English folklore. He even has “Wanted” posters for his capture, and robs coaches in the middle of the forest, though he doesn’t need a band of merry men to assist him; Zorro’s solo act makes him just a bit less believable, though no less formidable. He’s a master of manipulation and orchestrating dread.

Here, the romantic moments are unusually entertaining, largely thanks to the humor applied, turning some of the flirtation into comedy skits and others into hilarious notes on Diego’s effeminate facade, generally to the amusement of his foes, who are only further disarmed. But the primary appeal is the action – with chases, a stunning horse stunt, and plenty of thrusts and parries. The sword-fighting (though saved mostly for the finale) is a particular highlight, made more exciting by the fact that Power and Rathbone were no strangers to real-life cutlass clashes (“Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat,” Rathbone was once quoted). The long-awaited duel utilizes longer takes and fewer cuts, allowing the artistry of the rapiers to remain evident. At the conclusion, however, it’s not intimate battles that win the day and make “The Mark of Zorro” so memorable – it’s the clever storytelling and thrilling inspiration to the persecuted masses (resulting in a climactic overthrow), as well as a fitting nod to an earlier sequence (a true mark of filmmaking panache).

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10