The Mark of Zorro

The Mark of Zorro (1940 USA 93 mins)

Source: CAC Prod Co: 20th Century-Fox Prod: Raymond Griffith Dir: Rouben Mamoulian Scr: John Taintor Foote Phot: Arthur Miller Ed: Robert Bischoff Art Dirs: Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright Mus: Alfred Newman

Cast: Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaarde, Eugene Pallette, J. Edward Bromberg.

As the title page informs us, The Mark of Zorro is set during an idyllic epoch when ‘the Spanish encompassed the globe and young blades were taught the fine and fashionable art of killing’!

When we first meet Diego de Vega (Zorro) he is ‘The Californian Cockerel’, a commissioned officer in the Spanish cavalry in Madrid, dividing his time between courting young señoritas and fighting duels. He displays the affectations of his position, festooned in elaborately decorated uniforms and attended by a number of valets. On his father’s bequest Diego is forced to resign his commission and return to the country of his birth. Sharing a final drink with his fellow officers, they question him about his immanent departure. Asks one, ‘Are the Indians troublesome?’ ‘No’, he answers, ‘California is a land of gentle missions, happy peons and sleepy caballeros (1), where a man can only marry, raise fat children and watch his vineyards grow’. Surely there has never been articulated a more rose-coloured version of Spanish colonialism to obfuscate the exploitative practice of peonage.

The despicable practice of peonage, not dissimilar to European feudalism, was commonplace in the New World. Supported by the colonial government, large estates known as fincas (2) were run by caballeros or finqueros, who owned the land and maintained control over the peons (unskilled workers made up of indigenos (3) and mestizos (4)), through a process of slow pauperisation and enslavement. It was largely this insidious, systemic exploitation that led to the Mexican revolution.

Nevertheless it is to the ‘land of gentle missions’ that Diego returns when he sets sail from Spain. Along the way he learns that his father, Don Alejandro, the incumbent and benevolent alcalde (mayor), has been replaced by the despotic Don Luis, sending the formerly ‘happy’ peons into (further) abject poverty. Don Luis has raised taxes and with the venal military aid, Capitan Esteban Pasquale carrying out orders, has changed the society from one of obsequious acceptance to simmering dissent. As alcalde and nominal leader of the caballeros, Don Alejandro is the archetypal elder statesman and heads the opposition to Don Luis. However, his opposition is largely passive, as his strict adherence to the rule of law prevents him from taking direct action against Don Luis.

Recognising the complexity of the situation, and wishing to reinstate his father as alcalde, Diego is forced to create a form of active resistance whilst preserving his father’s moral position. He reinvents himself as an effete aesthete, touching a lace kerchief to his brow and speaking with Don Luis’ wife, Inez of fabrics, scents and the Spanish court. Conversely, the Capitan presents himself as a man of action, never without a blade in his hand, thrusting and parrying at shadows. The male weapon has never been more literally fetishised, causing the Capitan to quip, it is a ‘foolish habit of mine. Some men play with a glove, a monocle or a snuffbox. Churchmen finger their beads. I toy with a sword’.

The ‘new’ Diego is a masterstroke. Don Luis is happy to be amused by him, as he proves to be no rival for Pasquale; and Doña Inez, a voracious social climber, is enamoured by his European sophistication. She sees in Diego her longing for the privilege of the court and the touch of a younger, more virile man. It also allows Diego to defer any association he may have with his transgressive alter ego, the masked bandit Zorro.

The plot mirrors a decidedly Robin Hood scenario. Zorro steals from Don Luis and the tax collectors, handing over the bounty to his ally, the priest Frey Felipe, to redistribute to the peons and their families. The Robin Hood comparison is well founded, especially with the 1938 film version, The Adventures of Robin Hood (starring Errol Flynn), made just two years before Zorro. Like the men of Sherwood forest, who seek to replace the evil Prince John with the absent and heroic King Richard (who is off fighting in crusades), Zorro’s ultimate aim is to reinstate Don Alejandro. In a quirk of Hollywood extra textual referencing, Basil Rathbone virtually reprises his role as Guy of Gisbourne as the Capitan; while Eugene Pallette trades Friar Tuck for Frey Felipe, and even Montagu Love, who plays the moral axis, Don Alejandro, was a bishop in the first film. If there is a Maid Marion then Olivia de Havilland has been replaced as the virginal love interest by Lolita, played by Linda Darnell.

Not sufficiently occupied with liberating the masses through the Zorro persona, politically manipulating Don Luis and rivalling Capitan Pasquale for the affections of Dona Inez; Diego finds time to seduce the young niece of the Quinteros, the appropriately named Lolita. Diego initially achieves this as the unlikely ‘priest in disguise’ Padre Pablo, then as the foppish Diego and finally revealing himself as the dashing Zorro. Reviled by her uncle’s harsh regime the impressionable Lolita is swayed by Diego’s affections. In a twist of fate, Don Luis, considering a Diego/Lolita union as an ‘alliance for the good of the state’, betroths the two lovers. He hopes that the matrimony will appease the caballeros, believing them to be backing the Zorro insurgence, but has no idea that Diego IS Zorro.

‘In order to accomplish what I set out to do’, Diego tells his young bride, ‘I’ve had to deceive a great many people’. Diego is a man of impulsive actions and has a penchant for role-playing that divulges a complex and fractured character. After the death of Capitan Pasquale, killed in a dazzling duel with Diego that shows director Mamoulian at the apogee of his almost balletic direction, order is re-established in the city of Los Angeles.

However, for all his rebelliousness Diego is no revolutionary. The transgressive figure of Zorro is retired as he throws away his sword and his father is reinstated as alcalde, maintaining the status quo of the exploitative social order, even if it is in this more appealing and benign form. The supposed enemy, Don Luis is given the opportunity of a face saving ‘resignation’, then departs for Spain. The outcome of events render the three swishes of Diego’s trained blade that cut out the ‘Z’ for Zorro mark seem remarkably ineffectual for all the subterfuge, heroic deeds, dangerous escapades and flashy swordplay. It is in the film’s final moments that Diego’s transition from virtuous protagonist to symptomatic opportunist is revealed. When quizzed by Dona Inez as to when he will be returning to Spain with his new wife, Diego concedes, in reiterating the adage from earlier in the film (in this instance derision replaced with sincerity) that he only longs ‘to marry, raise fat children and watch his vineyards grow’. Being born into a privilege status, the Zorro creation only served to perpetuate what Diego considers as his and his family’s rightful place in society. Ultimately, he emerges as the model citizen for Spain’s expansionist credo.

Endnotes

  1. Caballero literally meant gentlemen, and was often taken to mean ‘of European descent’.
  2. These large blocks of land were often taken by force from the native population.
  3. Natives.
  4. Those of mixed native and European descent.

About The Author

Julian Savage is a Melbourne based artist, filmmaker and writer.