Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley

Zorro. The character is almost 100 years old and yet he needs no introduction. California’s very own masked superhero. Righter of wrongs and fan of the basic black ensemble. Zorro’s clothing and trademarks can be described even by people who have never read a Zorro book, seen a Zorro film or watched a Zorro television show.

Let’s take a look at the book that started it all.

The Mark of Zorro was originally published in All-Story magazine in 1919 under the title of The Curse of Capistrano, one of Zorro’s nicknames. My copy is a Penguin Classics edition. The book is in the public domain and may be downloaded for free. There is also a free public domain audiobook from the Librivox project.

What is it?: The people of California are suffering under the injustices of corrupt officials and landowners. However, a champion has arisen in the form of Zorro, the masked vigilante who attacks the dishonest and cruel. Armed with his sword (and the occasional whip) Zorro strikes where he is least expected. Meanwhile, Senorita Lolita has been receiving attentions from three men: Captain Ramon, a swaggering soldier; Don Diego Vega, a wealthy young fop who cannot be bothered with anything as tiring as romantic gestures; and Zorro himself. Who will she choose? Come on. Who would you choose? When in novels, go with the masked guy is black, you can never go wrong.

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Favorite part: McCulley, a pulp writer through and through, can certainly write a great action scene. In fact, he keeps the story moving at a furious pace. His prose is not the most elegant in the world but it does its job effectively. A sample from the first duel between Zorro and Captain Ramon:

The captain circled, trying to get the light of the candles in the highwayman’s eyes, but Senor Zorro was too clever for that. He caused the captain to circle back, forced him to retreat, fought him to a corner.

“Now, my captain!” he cried.

And so he ran him through the right shoulder, as the captain had said, and twisted the blade a bit as he brought it out. He had struck a little low, and Captain Ramon dropped to the floor, a sudden weakness upon him.

Senor Zorro stepped back and sheathed his blade.

“I ask the pardon of the ladies for this scene,” he said. “And I assure you that this time I am, indeed, going away. You will find that the captain is not badly injured, Don Carlos. He may return to his presidio within the day.”

Least favorite part: I guess I should give a spoiler warning but I don’t think anyone, even in 1919, was fooled by Zorro’s secret identity. We all know that he is really Don Diego Vega. However, McCulley goes to odd lengths to write as though Zorro’s unmasking is the twist ending of the century. This weakens to story for several reasons.

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First, it is a distraction to the reader. Everyone knows within a few pages that Don Diego is the masked vigilante but the author’s attempts to conceal this fact just make it all the more obvious.

Second, and more seriously, it deprives the tale of a real protagonist. Because McCulley wanted to conceal Zorro’s identity, he does not give the reader full access to the thoughts of either Zorro or Don Diego. This detachment makes it harder to sympathize with the character. This means that the reader is focused on either the bumbling Sergeant Gonzalez or the love interest Lolita, neither of whom is given enough scenes to make them a true protagonist. If McCulley had been serious about keeping Zorro’s identity under wraps, he should have made Lolita the main character from the start. As it is, she is introduced too late and left out for too long to take up the mantle.

Finally, the book misses out on excitement by concealing the Zorro/Don Diego connection. Think of the suspense that is created in Zorro films when our hero is trying to switch identities and is almost caught halfway! It is a great dramatic device for characters with secret identities.

zorro  (4)

Influence: Zorro continues to fire the popular imagination. The character is constantly revived more films, television, comic books and even new novels. What is the secret to his appeal? Well, I think that his distinct black costume and trademark “Z” sword slash give the character a dark side that is intriguing. But a dark side can only take a character so far. What else?

Well, because Zorro has been filmed so many different times (5 motion pictures and 5 serials before 1950, and that is just in the US!) and so many different ways, it is possible for filmmakers and authors to put their own “stamp” on the character.The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sherlock Holmes and Raffles all have their trademarks and distinct personality and filmmakers can only go so far from the norm before they risk alienating the audience. Because the definition of Zorro’s character has been allowed to become so broad, it is possible to mold him into whatever shape is stylish.

In fact, as of this writing there is still more Zorro coming our way. Not bad nearly-century-year-old character, eh? I think even Sherlock Holmes would be impressed.

Silent movie connection: Douglas Fairbanks obtained the rights to The Curse of Capistrano and made the very first Zorro film a year after the tale was published. The Mark of Zorro was a turning point for Fairbanks: it was his first all-costume film, its success meant that he would stay in costume for most of his career. Fairbanks also influenced the character of Zorro in ways that are still being felt.

While the novel provided a blueprint for Zorro, movies refined the character. The “look” of Zorro can be traced back to Douglas Fairbanks’s 1920 film. It’s all there: The sash, the cape, the half-mask… And he made the famous Zorro “Z”, which was mentioned in passing in the book, into a central component of the character. And Zorro’s famed skill with the whip (a relatively minor element in both the film and the book) was displayed first in Fairbanks’s sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro. The Fairbanks Zorro is, of course, extremely athletic and rambunctious. Several of the mounted chase scenes from the book are turned into acrobatic leaping escapes.

The other famous “classic Zorro” film is the 1940 remake of The Mark of Zorro, starring Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone. Power, wisely realizing that there was only one Fairbanks, chose to put his stamp on the character by playing up the Don Diego scenes and making use of his excellent fencing skills. His is a more serious Zorro (slightly) but still a ton of fun.

Zorro has been with us for nearly 100 years. Read the novel and find out why he will still be around in another 100.

☙❦❧

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