The Mark of Zorro and the Birth of the Action Adventure Film
Note: This is the hundred-and-eighth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1920 film, THE MARK OF ZORRO, directed by Fred Niblo.
THE MARK OF ZORRO is the film that gave Douglas Fairbanks, the reigning King of Hollywood through the 1920s, his crown. Beginning his career on the stage, Fairbanks had fathered his son Jr. (himself a big-name actor in the future) in 1909 with his first wife Anna Beth Sully in 1909. The family moved to Hollywood in 1915 and Fairbanks signed with Triangle Pictures, beginning a career built on comedies throughout the rest of the 1910s, sometimes displaying the athleticism that defined his peak. By 1920, Fairbanks had already divorced his wife in favor of an affair-turned-power-couple-marriage with the reigning Queen of Hollywood through the 1920s, Mary Pickford. And he had also, alongside his then-future wife, formed United Artists with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith so they may better control their creative output. And THE MARK OF ZORRO was its first product.
So within five years of his arriving in Hollywood, Fairbanks had already become a star-mogul. With creative control in his own hands, he turned to the kind of pictures that could display his athletic ability and romantic sensibilities. THE MARK OF ZORRO was just the first in a series of Fairbanks swashbucklers that came out nearly annually through the 1920s, which would also include THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1921), ROBIN HOOD (1922), and THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924). He co-wrote the screenplay, produced the film, and likely had a hand in acquiring the rights to Johnston McCulley’s 1919 pulp story THE CURSE OF CAPISTRANO, which introduced Zorro. There is an argument to be made that the swift adaptation of the novel played no small part in installing the Zorro “franchise” into popular media for decades to come.
Because you see, as far as I’ve been able to find, THE MARK OF ZORRO was one of the biggest hits of 1920. In fact, its very form mirrors, as closely as possible, the blockbusters of today. THE MARK OF ZORRO was popular entertainment, like most Hollywood pictures I suppose. But there was something different about its production values, its star power, its reliance on spectacular visual feats and effects.
You have to be familiar with the story of Zorro. Effete landowner Don Diego Vega, a ranchero in the missionary era of Spanish California, takes up the mantle of the black-cloaked Zorro (the Fox) to combat the oppressive regime of the colonial government. Of course, it’s the wealthy landowners being oppressed, so the revolution is supported! There’s only a slight acknowledgement of the Native Americans being mistreated, which Zorro does oppose.
Don Diego’s arranged romance, the daughter of another landowner, hates him but has fallen in love with the swashbuckling Zorro. Lolita is also pursued by Captain Ramon, played devilishly by Robert McKim. He’s supported by Noah Beery Sr.’s Sergeant Gonzalez, a slightly comic character. These are components familiar to the various incarnations of Zorro, and it makes for fun bits of deception and a suspenseful maintenance of Don Diego’s secret identity.
Fairbanks plays the civilian identity to foppish perfection, a weak-willed character who’s chin seems to turn inward. But as Zorro, Fairbanks is an entertaining rogue who leaps over tables and climbs up walls. It should be pointed out that Fairbanks is not the handsomest or svelte of guys, like a lot of the big male movie stars of the era; he’s a little doughy.
But with his mustache and convincing swagger, he pulls off an attractive air. And it should also be mentioned that the action is not gracefully choreographed; like a lot of the combat of the era, it’s quite repetitive and a little incredulous. A sword fight consists of just smacking swords in the same spot over and over.
But at a slender 105-ish minutes, THE MARK OF ZORRO never feels overplayed or rote. The plot points may feel tropey, but this is a time that the tropes were being invented. The secret identity of Don Diego and his dark garb and opposition to criminal designs would inform the pulp and superhero characters of the next few decades, and Batman especially. THE MARK OF ZORRO is just solid silent entertainment, a swashbuckling adventure that would foreshadow the heights of Fairbanks’ action-packed career.