The Mark of Zorro, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Written by John Taintor Foote, Garrett Fort, and Bess Meredyth. Based on “The Curse of Capistrano” by Johnston McCulley. Starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and Basil Rathbone. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Running Time: 94 minutes.
Some movies offer their audience the experience of an efficacious hero wittily fighting evil in a dramatic but benevolent world. The 1940 film The Mark of Zorro dazzles with such qualities. The film stars the dashing Tyrone Power as Zorro; Basil Rathbone, one of Hollywood’s most elegant and articulate villains, as Capitan Esteban; and the stylish Linda Darnell as the love interest, Lolita.
The story opens in sultry Madrid, where the “California Cockerel,” Don Diego Vega (Power), is training in the arts of war when he is suddenly called back to California by his father, the Alcalde (mayor) of Los Angeles. Diego reluctantly obeys, believing that he is leaving behind a life of adventure for a land “where a man can only marry, raise fat children, and watch his vineyards grow.” Arriving in California, Diego finds—teased out in clever and suspenseful ways—a land under the heavy heel of despotism. His father has been deposed and the new Alcalde, Don Luis Quintero, is a bloodthirsty weakling obsessed with extorting money through heavier and heavier taxes, aided by the cruel and vain Capitan Esteban.
After meeting the villains (and Don Luis’s lonely wife, Inez) Diego assumes his first disguise, Diego the fop. Now hidden are the real Don Diego’s quick, confident laugh, resolute bravery, and firm sword hand. These are replaced by a manicured hand trembling over a handkerchief and a dandy’s concern for scents and the latest satins and silks. Diego slyly tells Esteban that “swordplay is such a violent business,” then primps himself with his kerchief. Luis sneers to Esteban, “That’s one little peacock that won’t give us any trouble.”
After visiting his father, Diego learns that the former Alcalde and the other nobles will not rise up against the law, even if it is now an evil one. But Diego will, in disguise. The bandit Zorro is born. Keeping his new identity secret, Diego dons black hat and mask, and atop a black horse liberates taxes stolen from the peons while leaving behind his mark, a slashed “Z.” Zorro publicly vows to force Don Luis from power.
The character Don Diego now has three personas in his characterization: the strong (in private) Don Diego, the public foppish Diego, and the swashbuckling Zorro.
A protagonist with multiple, conflicting personas is integral to the best-costumed hero stories. For example, take Clark Kent in the Superman stories. There is the real Clark, a strong and intelligent man mostly only experienced by himself and his parents. Then there is the Clark Kent public disguise, the mild-mannered reporter. And, of course, the public hero in suit and cape, Superman. A similar three-part personality makes up the character Batman. Such tri-part personas in one character are an important reason why Superman, Batman, and Zorro are among the most interesting and popular of the costumed heroes.
Much of the drama, wit, and cleverness of The Mark of Zorro results from Diego assuming his two public disguises. Diego enacts his destruction of Luis’s dictatorship through these disguises, which gives the film its two main plotlines. The first is Zorro physically terrorizing Don Luis to quit California. The second is Diego playing the despot’s concerned friend, sweetly encouraging the Alcalde and his wife to flee to safety in Madrid. These plotlines are integrated, and both are richly entertaining.
A good story is not just interesting events, but also how these events are told. Don Diego’s deceptions are, of course, played ironically. We, the audience, know the deceptions, but most of the other characters do not; thus we omnisciently and amusingly see and understand all of Zorro’s tricks and wits against his enemies.
The Mark of Zorro is an excellent example of the importance of deception in a plot.* Deception and disguise are not only crucial to the storytelling and entertainment of The Mark of Zorro but were central to much of the great literature of the 19th century. Witness their importance to Les Misérables, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and A Tale of Two Cities. In Les Misérables, arguably the greatest fiction work of that period or any period, crucial to its drama is Jean Valjean assuming a false identity and living in fear of his lie being uncovered by his nemesis, Inspector Javert. If it is uncovered, Valjean will be destroyed.
The use of disguise and deceit in The Mark of Zorro also allows for great wit. On the simple level, the humor in the film flows from Diego’s preening as a dandy as he moans about the California heat, his fatigue from dancing, and his lateness because his “bath water was tepid.” On a deeper level, the fun in these scenes is heightened by the audience ironically knowing that Don Diego is really playing a game with his enemies, and everything he says has two meanings.
Children and adults can, thereby, watch together movies like Zorro and all be highly entertained. All enjoy Zorro’s devil derring-do heroics while the adults can chuckle at the sly ironic wit that Zorro uses against Don Luis, for example.
The use of irony also allows for poignant plot developments in the story. The conflict escalates when Diego sees from the Alcalde’s window a vision of loveliness, Lolita, the mayor’s beautiful niece and ward. Now Diego is caught in the consequences of his foppish disguise: A woman such as Lolita would not be interested in a weakling. But to attain his goal of destroying the dictatorship, Diego must maintain his foppish deception. He is caught in a contradiction between his personas: The heroic but secret Zorro and the foppish but public Diego.
Because of Don Diego’s deceptions a poignant, ironic love scene can occur between him and Lolita. To hide from his pursuers, Zorro enters a dark chapel, where the alluring Lolita, whom he has not yet met, is kneeling in prayer, begging Mother Mary to send her a husband “to take me from this dreary place. Someone I can love and respect. Let him be kind and brave—and handsome, please.”
After Lolita whispers these words, Zorro appears disguised as a friar and gazes on her beautifully lit face and glistening eyes. He is now deeply in love. Lolita opens her lonely heart to the “friar” and is surprised and pleased by his praise for her beauty and his passion that she not waste herself in a convent, as her jealous aunt Inez is threatening. Zorro and Lolita’s touching and ironic dialogue is interrupted when Inez arrives, warning Lolita that the dangerous Zorro is in the surrounds.
The poignancy of this love scene is the result of the subtle ways in which the characters’ values are revealed and concretized. No demonstrative speeches, no violent exclamations or actions, just two souls discovering each other in the dark through ironic dialogue. The audience reacts strongly to this discovery because we have greater knowledge than both of the characters, thus understanding better the implications and deeper meanings of their words.
With its clever and multilayered action, witty characters, and its moral sensibility of good triumphing over evil, wit over stupidity, and love over malice, as well as its colorful dialogue, stylish lighting, and beautiful costumes, The Mark of Zorro dramatizes a benevolent universe that demands many return engagements. The film also offers an arena where writers and filmmakers today can learn much about how to create value-laden, evocative drama. The Mark of Zorro was made when irony, wit, and romanticism dominated Hollywood, and it is an inspiring testament to that time and art.
Scott McConnell is a producer and writer in Los Angeles.
* Thanks to Larry Benson for highlighting to me the plot importance of disguise and deception.