MARK OF ZORRO, THE (Fred Niblo, 1920, USA, 90m, BW)
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Robert McKim, Charles Hill Mailes, George Periolat, Walt Whitman, Charles Stevens, Noah Beery Jr., Charles Belcher, Snitz Edwards, Gilbert Clayton, Claire McDowell, Marguerite de la Motte, Charles H. Mailes, Noah Beery, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
Director: Fred Niblo
Running Time: 90 min.
When corrupt Governor Alvarado (George Periolat) crushes the poor people of Spanish California under his iron heel, wealthy fop Don Diego Vega (Douglas Fairbanks) sheds his silks, dons a mask and cape and becomes the legendary Zorro, defender of the people. Infuriated by Zorro's meddling, Alvarado dispatches his right-hand man, Captain Ramon (Robert McKim), who has a score to settle with Zorro for stealing away the object of his desire: the lovely Lolita Pulido (Marguerite De La Motte) creating problems.
The Mark of Zorro is set in California in the early nineteenth century and the story opens as Don Diego Vega (Fairbanks) returns from Spain to find his family being menaced by a corrupt governor and his henchmen. While Don Diego appears on the surface to be an effete dilettante, his behavior is really an elaborate ruse. In reality, he is Zorro, a master swordsman who has dedicated his life to fighting evil tyrants. Dressed in a purple cloak and black mask, Zorro torments his enemies further by carving a "Z" on the bodies of his adversaries while laughing in their faces.
While modestly budgeted in comparison to later swashbucklers, The Mark of Zorro serves up a succession of spectacular swordfights and gravity-defying stunts in lieu of an opulent production. Among the highlights is a scene where Zorro leads the soldiers of arch villain, Captain Juan Ramon, on a wild goose chase through the village and the climactic duel between Zorro and Ramon.
The public was obviously ready for a new brand of escapism because The Mark of Zorro became a box office smash and allowed Fairbanks the opportunity to create a new gallery of swashbuckling heroes, including D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Don Q Son of Zorro (1925), and The Black Pirate (1926). Director Fred Niblo would also go on to distinguish himself as a costume epic specialist with Blood and Sand (1922) and Ben-Hur (1925).
Gonzales is the first to provide Zorro with an opportunity to demonstrate his athletic prowess while sword-fighting, running circles around his opponent and leaping from floor to table to mantelpiece with loose-limbed ease. Fairbanks really was in incredibly good shape for a man in his late 30s, and it’s remarkable to think that it was at this relatively advanced age that he embarked on his renewed career as a swashbuckling man of action after half-a-decade in light comedies and westerns.
This is a fast paced comic adventure tale. I'm not the fan of silent movies that my brothers are. I tend to like them short and funny. And while this movie is over an hour, it feels shorter as it moves along at a nice pace. Nothing is taken too seriously and Zorro is someone you can root for the whole way. Fairbanks is great in the role. He jumps and leaps his way across the screen like a whirling dervish, rarely sitting still while he's wearing the mask. His antics are even more impressive when you learn that he was in his late 30s and a heavy smoker when he made this film.
In addition to Fairbanks’ essentially light-hearted antics — although passionate about relieving the oppression of the populace, he seems to treat his confrontations with the Governor’s troops as something of a lark — The Mark of Zorro boasts a nice comic touch with a number of unexpectedly comical moments, and the story moves at an unusually fast pace for a silent movie. Given its historical importance on a number of levels, The Mark of Zorro is well worth a look both by those with an interest in the history of movies and fans of swashbuckling heroes.
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