Was Zorro the first superhero of American pop culture? He has certainly proved to be one of the most enduring, having lasted now for 86 years and spawned countless progeny and imitations. And 2005 may well be his biggest year yet. May saw the publication of the novel Zorro , the first serious fictional treatment of the character, by the Peruvian-born California writer Isabel Allende, and a new Zorro comic-book series by the writer-artist team of Don McGregor and Sidney Lima. (The first Zorro story, serialized in 1919 as The Curse of Capistrano , is still in print under the title The Mark of Zorro .) But the biggest Zorro news of all was the recent release of The Legend of Zorro , the follow-up to the hugely successful 1998 film The Mask of Zorro .
The Zorro we know wasn’t a product of birth so much as of evolution. America’s first popular fictional Hispanic character— zorro is “fox” in Spanish—originated not in Mexico or Spain but in the mind of a New York hack journalist named Johnston McCulley, who moved to Southern California in 1908 and picked up something of the local color and lore of the region.
McCulley’s first Zorro, in a tale written for a pulp adventure magazine, was simply a Spanish gentleman in a mask fighting for the rights of downtrodden Mexican peasants and Indians. In 1920 Douglas Fairbanks changed all that, turning him into a black-suited daredevil in The Mark of Zorro , and this image has been embellished ever since. Along the way, Zorro inspired dozens of crime fighters, most notably Batman, whose mask, cape, and cave all were derived from the boyhood hero of his creator, Bob Kane.
Films and television shows about Zorro have practically constituted a light industry. Here are the most essential. Aficionados of the Fox should have no trouble locating:
The Mark of Zorro (1920). Loosely based on McCulley’s original story, the first Zorro feature was directed by Fred Niblo, but you won’t be watching it for long before you know that the real auteur is Douglas Fairbanks. The first great action hero of American cinema devised stunts and set pieces that are still a marvel. Available on DVD.
The Mark of Zorro (1940). Rouben Mamoulian directed this remake sluggishly, and Tyrone Power, frustrated at this point in his career by not being given more serious parts, seems to phone in the performance when Zorro’s mask is off. But it definitely has its moments, especially the famous showing-off sequence just before the final duel between Power’s Diego and Basil Rathbone’s Captain Pasquale. The arrogant Pasquale licks his sword and extinguishes a candle with a swish; Diego does the same only to produce no apparent result. Rathbone bursts into derisive laughter; Power, smiling, lifts the severed taper, flame still burning. Available on DVD.
“The Man From Spain” and “Zorro and the Mountain Man.” These are episodes from Zorro , the charming, handsomely mounted late-fifties Walt Disney television series starring a genial Guy Williams, later even more famous as the father in “Lost in Space.” With its lovely Hollywood Mexican-style sets and superb guest actors—the villain in “The Man From Spain” is Everett Sloane (of Citizen Kane )—the series set American kids to slashing chalk Z’s on walls and singing “Out of the night, when the full moon is briiiight… .” Available on VHS.
Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981). Here is one of the funniest comedies of the early eighties, with an ebullient George Hamilton doubling as a ditzy Zorro and his gay twin, who prefers flaming red and gold lamé to the traditional basic black. Hamilton’s Zorro defines his mission thus: “To defend the defenseless, to befriend the friendless, and to defeat … the feetless.” Costarring Brenda Vaccaro, Lauren Hutton, Clive Revill, and a wickedly funny Ron Leibman as a neurotic despot. Directed by Peter Medak. Available on DVD.
Zorro, Mark of the Z (1996). A well-made hourlong documentary from A&E “Biography” on the first 75 years of the Zorro legend, featuring everything from old paintings of Zorro’s ancestor Joaquín Murieta to clips from Zorro films both famous and obscure. Available on VHS.
The Mask of Zorro (1998). The Wall Street Journal ’s Joe Morgenstern correctly described Martin Campbell’s film (produced by Steven Spielberg) as “a gift from the movie Gods.” It has two superb Zorros: Anthony Hopkins as the aging Don Diego and Antonio Banderas as the peasant he must train as his successor. Banderas was, amazingly, the first Hispanic actor ever to play the role. He was also the first to portray Zorro from the ground up; we see him grow into the role of a hero with a passion rare for adventure movies. Banderas plays the part with a sweet reticence and self-mocking humor that make his Zorro the most appealing ever. Overlong and a bit unfocused toward the end, The Mask of Zorro has sensational set pieces, including a torrid dance sequence with Banderas and the awesome Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose career was firmly established by this film, and a rousing opening rescue sequence. It ends with Zorro and his rearing black stallion silhouetted against the sky while James Horner’s music soars and the people cheer.
In addition, this is probably the last great adventure film with duels choreographed in the old-style Hollywood manner without the computer-enhanced stunts that would become standard after The Matrix . Available on DVD, the special edition, with deleted scenes, is highly recommended.