The Mark of Zorro (1920)


  • directed by Fred Niblo
  • starring Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery Sr., Charles Hill Mailles, George Periolat, Sydney de Gray
  • By day, Don Diego de la Vega is the ne’er-do-well son of a wealthy California rancher. By night, he’s the masked hero Zorro, who fights to rescue his fellow citizens from the tyrannical Capt. Juan Ramon.

For me there were two separate movies going on within The Mark of Zorro, which struck me more often than not as a remarkably flat movie when it wasn’t in full-tilt action mode. The reason for the unevenness is likely because that it was a film developed mainly by Douglas Fairbanks as a way to put on a pedestal the star power and charisma of Douglas Fairbanks and launch himself into the big budget adventure film genre. This was a winning strategy at the time as audiences were ecstatic just to have the actor be dashing on screen, but it goes without saying that almost a century removed from Fairbanks-mania, the actor alone is not still able to hold up an entire film. There were only a few people who in these years had that power to overshadow otherwise lackluster productions, in my opinion, and although his physical abilities as Zorro were impressive, the film needed much more help.

On the positive side, it was hard not to enjoy the cartoonish yet thrilling fight scenes, especially the one between Zorro and Gonzalez that opened the film. For all the swords, guns, and deadly intentions, there was very little danger present in any of the fights so the overall stakes plateaued rather early on. Fairbanks’ humorous side was a great addition to the series of battles, however, featuring choreography that I could see in any Looney Tunes sketch had they been animated.

Another part of the film that I enjoyed, and it was unexpected as I am no aficionado on the backstory or mythology of the Zorro character, was how closely the story of Don Diego/Zorro followed the path, or founded the path, of many of the modern comic superhero origin story films. It struck a lot of those familiar chords in its structure and in how relationships were carried out between Don and his alter ego, his father, and the villain. In true superhero fashion the story also had that romantic interest Lolita, who knew both of his personas yet couldn’t decipher that they were one and the same despite some minor facial accessories.

There was also a foliage-covered door in which he and his horse could subterraneously enter his house ala 1960’s Batman. All of these familiar, but innovative at the time, concepts and yet it sorely lacked the one thing that any good origin story needs–an origin story. There was very little explanation or detail given to Diego’s earlier time in Spain where he developed the skills and convictions that compelled him to return home and fight for the oppressed. Some flashbacks to his awakening or having the whole film be about that come to think of it would have done wonders in rounding out the otherwise one-note story.

That’s really all I see fit to discuss about The Mark of Zorro. The film so clearly came alive during the action sequences with some truly great stunts and choreography, but then it took a nosedive immediately with most exposition scenes. Two memorable fight scenes don’t make a great film and aside from a picturesque moonlit prison break, I felt like director Fred Niblo was inactive for the majority. As producer and something of Hollywood royalty at the time, it’s easy to point to Fairbanks as the guy to blame for letting some important details fall away in favor of hamming up the screen in the Zorro blacks and suave and smiley countenance. The film wasn’t a huge failure, don’t get me wrong, but it needed a lot more meat on its bones.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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