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  Mark of Zorro, The Z
Year: 1920
Director: Fred Niblo
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks, Noah Beery, Charles Hill Mailes, Claire McDowell, Marguerite De La Motte, Robert McKim, George Periolat, Walt Whitman, Sidney De Gray, Tote Du Crow
Genre: Action, Romance, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: A hundred years ago, California was labouring under oppression from the ruling classes, leaving not only the ordinary folk but the well off families increasingly destitute. The Governor (George Periolat) did little but gloat about this state of affairs, but there was one man who seemed to be taking matters into his own hands, although nobody knew who he actually was. He went by the name of Zorro, a masked swashbuckler who saw to it that any official or soldier beating his countrymen down would be punished...

"How did he do such amazing stunts with such little feet?" asks Hedley Lamarr of Douglas Fairbanks at the end of Blazing Saddles on seeing his impressions in the cement, but he wasn't always known for his acrobatics, as previous to The Mark of Zorro the star had been making jolly comedies. He was still famous, but when this movie was released his renown went through the roof, and set him up to be the world's first major action star, although he made sure to include a hefty dose of humour and romance in his subsequent efforts.

These proved to be wise moves, because that formula sustained the adoration of his public throughout the twenties, right up to the end of the silent era where he fell out of favour, not due to any scandal but more that fashions were changing. His Zorro, even today, remains the performance of the celebrated hero to be reckoned with, an obvious ancestor to countless superheroes, most obviously Batman as Fairbanks played both the crusader and his milquetoast alter ego, Don Diego, a meek and weak nobleman, who is amusingly lethargic and prone to silly parlour tricks with his hankie or making shadow figures on the wall.

Although Zorro is perfectly serious about liberating his countrymen from the yoke of oppression (we can tell because the intertitles use that word at every opportunity), he also supplied an infectious sense of fun as he donned his disguise and leapt around the sets with wild abandon. You can see why he was such a hit, as while he may not go as far as winking at the camera, his actions invite us to be in on what a great lark this all is, confident that we were going to see evil vanquished and Zorro win the girl, in this case Lolita Pulido, whose family has lost their fortune thanks to the Governor and are hoping Don Diego will marry her to rescue them.

Lolita was played by one of Fairbanks' favourite leading ladies, Marguerite De La Motte, who aside from her success as a movie star had a sad and tragic life, not that you'd notice from her committed performance here as she is put off by Don Diego's wimpy persona but enchanted with the dashing Zorro, leaving us wondering if she will find out the truth. Of course there was a wish fulfilment aspect to this, that a mundane fellow by day could be a terrific man of action by night, but that was present in many hero fictions, and doing good deeds was really the point, along with presenting its protagonist in narrow escapes, sword fights with the villains, and generally throwing himself around in leaps and bounds as if there were no tomorrow. Already the style of such adventures was set in stone by The Mark of Zorro: it may be showing its age, but it was basically the same kind of blockbuster that followed decades after, ahead of its time you could say.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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