When young Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) is called back by his father from a life of duelling, making merry and a bit of soldiering in Spain to Spanish California, he finds out his Dad Don Alejandro (Montagu Love) isn’t the governor of the province around beautiful Los Angeles anymore. The just, fair and incredibly law abiding Don Alejandro has been replaced by the cruel, greedy, snivelling and all-around unpleasant Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) who shares the spoils of oppressing the peasantry with his not exactly beloved partner in crime and captain of the local soldiery, Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone).
Diego is not at all happy with this sort of thing but he knows his father
won’t approve of any extra-legal attempts to get rid of Quintero, Pasquale and
their minions, so he decides to pretend to be the wimpiest fop ever to have
spent time in Spain and secretly fight them under the guise of the masked rider
Zorro in a campaign of finely placed needle pricks. If all goes to plan Zorro’s
activities should bring Quintero to resignation, and get him to name Don
Alejandro as his replacement to avoid having one bad apple replaced by another
one. While he’s at it, Diego also finds the time to romance Quintero’s niece,
the extremely virginal Lolita Quintero (Linda Darnell) out of love, as well as
Quintero’s wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard) as part of his plans.
Rouben Mamoulian’s movie version of Johnston McCulley’s pulp character Zorro
is pretty much the epitome of a great old-style Hollywood swashbuckling film.
It’s crisply paced – having already established its characters and situation and
started its hero on his mission by minute twenty-one – going from sharp,
genuinely funny dialogue scenes to still exciting action to a cute romance and
back again with aplomb and a generous spirit that should put a smile on
Power is the perfect Zorro as well as the perfect Don Diego, diving in the
pretend-foppishness with the same verve he shows when he (well, or his fencing
double) is donning his costume, milking every fun little barb the script gives
him for the best effect and – obviously, giving the sort of film this is and the
time it comes from – cutting the appropriately dashing figure. I also find him
genuinely likeable because he gets the rather difficult balancing act between
charming and rogue just right and therefore never comes over as a self-loving
prick. And we all know how Basil Rathbone excelled at being the villain in this
kind of piece, as well as at the fencing.
Mamoulian is a director I really more connected with musicals, and wouldn’t
have expected to be quite this good at letting the swash buckle. Though
swashbucklers and musicals do of course share an emphasis on elegant movement,
so perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised by how perfectly Mamoulian
handles the material here. There’s a joyfulness of movement (and therefore
physicality) not only to the action scenes but also to much of the dialogue
sequences, with little in Mamoulian’s direction that seems routine or in the
least bit willing to ever look boring or bland. The director’s hand is so
strong, he even gets away with a central fencing match between Diego and
Pasquale that doesn’t take place in an open space or very large room but in what
amounts to a somewhat larger office room. The strong choreography by Fred Cavens
- responsible for a lot of the more impressive looking fencing you’ll see in
classic Hollywood films – for that decisive duel is pretty remarkable, too,
using the cramped space brilliantly and inventively.
The whole thing’s also beautiful to look at, with sets that are certainly not
authentic to the time and place they are supposed to belong to but which feel
like the proper environments for the story taking place in them. Arthur C.
Miller’s photography is shadow-rich and atmospheric, never looking anything less
than perfect for any given moment.
If all this sounds as if I enjoyed The Mark of Zorro a lot, and
think it’s one of the best swashbucklers and adventure movies ever to have come
out of classic sound film Hollywood, then I’ve done my job here exactly