Over the years there have been many movies and TV series based on the character of Zorro, a champion of the people against tyrannical rulers in Spanish Colonial California. No less than Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was the first to play the masked avenger. Later such men as Robert Livingston, Alan Delon, Rodolfo de Anda and even Anthony Hopkins would play the role. Guy Williams starred as Zorro in a Fifties series of the same name. For myself, however, out of all the actors to play the masked man, Tyrone Power Jr. will always be El Zorro.
Zorro first appeared in the novella The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley, serialised over five issues in All-Story Weekly in 1919. Even in his first appearance, Zorro boasted many of the characteristics we associate with him. He was Don Diego de la Vega, a nobleman who masquerades as an effete fop by day and fights injustice by night as the cunning El Zorro. That having been said, there were also some subtle differences from the Zorro we know today. In The Curse of Capistrano Zorro wears a sombrero and a cloth mask that covers his face. He also did not leave behind the mark of a "Z"--the mark of Zorro--as a sign of his presence. It would be the first motion picture to feature Zorro that would establish his appearance as we know him now, as well as his practice of carving the mark of Zorro on almost any surface, sometimes even his enemies.
It was on February 5, 1919 that four of the biggest names in Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford founded United Artists, whose goal was to place more control over the movie making process in the hands of the artists who made them. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. would have a difficult time deciding what should be the first movie released by United Artists. The romantic comedies which had made him a star were not doing nearly as well as they once had. Fairbanks then decided to make a dramatic shift his career, from romantic lead to action star. He came upon the novella The Curse of Capistrano in All-Story Weekly and decided to adapt it as the motion picture which would be called The Mark of Zorro. The Mark of Zorro would be the first movie ever released by United Artists.
Released on November 27, 1920, The Mark of Zorro proved to be an enormous success and of great historic importance. It would almost single handedly establish the swashbuckler genre in film. It also transformed Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s career. Once a romantic lead, Fairbanks became the star of several swashbucklers, including The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926). His swashbucklers were so successful that to this day he is still identified with the genre. The Mark of Zorro (1920) would also bring changes to Zorro and shape the character as we know him today. In the film Zorro dressed in a black cordobés, a black mask covering only the upper half of his face, a black cape, and black clothes. Johnston McCulley liked the appearance of Zorro in the movie so much that he garbed Zorro in the same costume in every subsequent story. It would also be the film which would introduce the mark of Zorro, which McCulley also incorporated in all subsequent Zorro stories. Indeed, in the wake of the success of the movie, The Curse of Capistrano would be retitled The Mark of Zorro.
In the following years even more movies were made featuring Zorro and Johnston McCulley wrote even more stories featuring the character. Zorro was the first superhero and it would only be a few years before pulp magazines and comic books began publishing similar characters. Indeed, Bob Kane acknowledged The Mark of Zorro (1920) as one of the primary inspirations for Batman. The characters are certainly similar: wealthy men (Don Diego de la Vega and Bruce Wayne) who pretend to utter idiots by day while fighting crime by night.
In the meantime Douglas Fairbanks Jr. sold his rights to The Curse of Capistrano to 20th Century Fox. Oddly enough, the film's working title was The Californians (one would have thought Fox would have wanted to take advantage of the Zorro name from the beginning).It is known that William A. Drake and Dorothy Hechtlinger both worked on treatments for the film. Ultimately the original novella would be adapted by Garrett Fort (who had adapted the classic Universal version of Frankenstein) and Bess Meredyth (who had written the screenplay for Charlie Chan at the Opera), with the screenplay being written by John Taintor Foote (who would go on to write Notorious). As for the casting, Darryl Zanuck initially suggested Richard Greene play Zorro. Of course, Greene would go on to fame as another classic swashbuckling hero, Robin Hood, in the British TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood in the Fifties.
In the end of the role Don Diego de la Vega and Zorro went to Tyrone Power Jr.. Power was a rising star at Fox, having appeared in In Old Chicago (1937), Suez (1938), and Jesse James (1939). In some respects Tyrone Power Jr. was an odd choice to play Zorro. Not only had he never appeared in a swashbuckler before The Mark of Zorro, but he had never even handled a sword. A story bandied about by the studio that his mother, actress Patia Powers, was a fencing champion who had taught her son was patently false. Regardless, he proved ideal in the role of Zorro. Not only did he have the dashing good looks necessary to a swashbuckling hero, but he also proved to be a natural with as sword.
After years of stating that director Rouben Mamoulian would never work on his lot as he was too independent, Darryl F. Zanuck chose him as the director of The Mark of Zorro. After reading the script, which he knew Zanuck had worked upon and a script he hated, Mamoulian initially told his agent he would not direct the film. Zanuck then met with Mamoulian. Zanuck told Mamoulian he could have the script rewritten, after which Mamoulian brought up Zanuck's practice of cutting a film after a director had finished it. Zanuck refused to let Mamoulian have final cut, whereupon the director started to walk out the door. Ultimately Mamoulian did receive final cut.
As a director Rouben Mamoulian was a minimalist who definitely took a "less is more" approach. In such films as the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Queen Christina (1933), and Becky Sharp (1935), he showed a definite preference for subtlety over flashy theatrics. For that reason the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro shows a marked contrast to the 1920 version and Errol Flynn's many swashbucklers, all of which featured over the top action. An example of Mamoulians' subtlety at work was given in the book Rouben Mamoulian by Tom Milne and is cited on TCM's article on the film. In the sequence Zorro effortlessly infiltrates the mansion of Qunintero (J. Edward Bromberg) to threaten him and just as effortlessly leaves the mansion. There are no flashy theatrics, there is no over the top of action. Such an approach is actually more in keeping with the actual character of Zorro, a masked avenger who works by night and uses stealth to his advantage, than an extravagant action sequence would have been.
Tyrone Power Jr.'s performance as Zorro complimented Mamoulian's direction perfectly. Both Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Errol Flynn played swashbucklers who took a devil -may-care attitude to life, throwing off wisecracks as they duelled the bad guys through swordplay. While as Zorro Tyrone Power Jr. does utter the occasional one liner, his Zorro is much more serious and reserved than any of Fairbanks or Flynn's characters. Again this is much more fitting for a masked avenger who works by night.
Of course, it must also be pointed out that while Mamoulian took a minimalist approach to the action in the film, The Mark of Zorro had no shortage of exciting action sequences. Indeed, connoisseurs of swordplay on film consider it among the best sword fighting films ever made. The sword fights were choreographed by fencing instructor Fred Cavens, who had choreographed the fencing in the 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940). Basil Rathbone was already a master swordsmen. And while he had never handled a sword, Tyrone Power Jr. proved a quick study. Even Rathbone was impressed, later stating, "Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat." While Fred Cavens' son Albert doubled for Power in some scenes, much of the actual sword fighting on the screen was performed by none other than Tyrone Power Jr. himself.
Beyond Tyrone Power Jr. and Basil Rathbone (at home as a reprehensible villain in a swashbuckler), the rest of the cast also gave superb performances. Eugene Palette, who had played Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood, was quite convincing as Fray Felipe, the friar who delivers the gold Zorro takes from the wealthy oppressors back to the poor. Gale Sondergard gave a bravura performance as Inez, Quntero's wife, who is so ambitious and power hungry she could have given Lady Macbeth a run for her money. Among the most impressive performances is given by the beautiful and still terribly young (she was only 17 at the time of the movie's release) Linda Darnell. The Mark of Zorro was only her fifth film, yet as Lolita Quintero, both Don Diego and Zorro's love interest, she gives a surprisingly convincing and mature performance.
The Mark of Zorro proved to be a hit when it was first released in 1940. In fact, it was so successful that it marked a shift in Tyrone Power Jr.'s career towards swashbucklers, much as the 1920 version had changed Fairbanks' career as well. Over the next few years Power would make such swashbucklers as The Black Swan (1942), Captain from Castille (1947), and The Black Rose (1950). Over the years the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro would become regarded as a classic, so much so that to this days fans argue over which is the quintessential version of Zorro on screen, Fairbanks or Power's version. As for myself, Zorro will always be Tyrone Power Jr. While he was not the first actor I ever saw as Zorro (That would be Guy Williams), he was arguably the best.