Thursday, August 26, 2021

Swashbuckle Watch: The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Watched:  08/26/2021
Format:  TCM on DVR
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1940's
Director:  Rouben Mamoulian

I'm fully down with the idea of Zorro.  Back in the 1970's and 80's, the character was still relatively popular as our parents had come up on Zorro movies and the Disney television show.  We got a cartoon and Zorro the Gay Blade.  I did watch some reruns of the Disney show, and in 1990 I watched the first season or two of Zorro on the Family Channel.  And, I quite liked the two Antonio Banderas/ Catherine Zeta Jones films.

Somehow I'd never watched this movie.  Ironically, I once owed dozens of dollars in late fees on the movie when I rented it in college and lost it in my apartment (it somehow got kicked under the bed), but I never got to see it before I found and returned it.  So, here we are.  

But, yeah, this movie is terrific.  It's all-ages action in the vein of The Adventures of Robin Hood, with swordplay, swashbuckling, adventure, comedy and romance.  Zorro is a great character from jump, and, first appearing in 1919, paired with the Scarlet Pimpernel is more or less the blueprint from which superheroes sprung.  I mean:  mask, cape, joie de vivre, fighting injustice.

What separates the heroes of pre-1985 from the heroes of today falls into stark relief in this film.  Zorro is a rapscallion and clearly working against what passes for the law, but he's also not nursing a hurt.  He's not drawn into his work for revenge, exactly, but because he wants to set things right for peons (yikes) and caballero alike.  A bully alcalde who doesn't mind hurting people so he might prosper will eventually squeeze the people into desperation and ruin whatever economy they've set up, anyway (you need a healthy and accessible middle class, alcalde).  And, yes, this version of Zorro also does have the personal injustice of Don Diego de la Vega's father having been ousted from the job - but he's not dead, just gone back to farming.

Motivation of a character is key, and while I get the Deathwish type characters, not everything is that.  

I recall knowing who Tyrone Power was as a kid, but I have no idea why.  I was in college before I saw one of his pirate films.  My guess is he was still discussed as an action hero.  I've since seen him in a handful of movies not the least of which is the outstanding Nightmare Alley.  Anyway,  yes, he's part of the long legacy of not Hispanic or even folks of Spanish heritage playing Zorro, but he's still a great model for the character.  

Our film has Don Diego as a typically smarter-than-the-average-bear type, and he puts on his ruse as the dilettante immediately, sensing the cowardly defensiveness of the Alcalde and Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone playing evil-Rathbone to the hilt).  But a neat trick written in is that even as the fop, Don Diego is fond of sleight of hand.  He's constantly playing simple visual tricks, which, of course, no one associates with "maybe that guy isn't what he seems".  

Our love interest is Linda Darnell, who is... good?  I guess.  She's overshadowed by Gale Sondergaard playing her aunt and guardian (and who is clearly looking for someone to whisk her off her feat and away from her husband), who seems like more fun, but Don Diego don't play that way.  

I do wish more had been made of the impacts of the Alcalde and Captain Pasquale's very, very Prince John and Sheriff of Nottingham schemes to bleed the people dry via unjust taxation.  It's certainly right there, but we don't get much more than a nod from Zorro as to the injustice of it all for the people (something Robin Hood is pretty vocal about), and he relies on Friar Tuck Fray Felipe to do the work of redistributing his ill got gains to the "peons".  

The fighting and horsemanship in the movie is worth the price of admission, and it's worth a watch just to see Rathbone and Power fence.  One wishes they'd fenced out of the room and into other sets for that full Robin Hood scale, but it's a hell of a fight.  

There's also a big-scale ending and citizen uprising, which doesn't feel unmotivated, exactly.  We've seen the suffering of the locals - just not through Zorro's eyes.  So, yeah, if he lights the fuse, those well-trained garrison soldiers are going to get their asses kicked.  I guess I bring all of this up, because I think of those pre-1980's heroes as heroes "of the people".  That's who Superman is, as much as the Scarlett Pimpernel, and others.  It's a recognition that you need to push back against bullies and authoritarianism (mask mandates are not that), and from my earliest memories - Zorro is a guy who is there for the people and to be an inspiration and beacon of hope for them.  And, ina  round about way, that's true here.  I'd just like more lines of direct connection.

It's a fun movie, and one of the greats in the retelling of the Zorro story.  But, man, I'd like a new one.  It's been decades.  Or even a Zorro 2021 would be cool.  It's not like we don't have a political situation which could make for an interesting backdrop.

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