Fox // 1940 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // December 1st, 2003
The Jagged Mark of His Sword Struck Terror to Every Heart -- But One!
Zorro was one of the first popular heroes to employ a secret identity for cover. Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, the Lone Ranger, and others may have followed in his footsteps, but it was Zorro, in Johnston McCulley's short story "The Curse of Capistrano," who became the prototype of an American icon: the mysterious, masked crusader who fights for truth and justice. Now, the greatest version of that story ever to hit the silver screen swashbuckles its way to DVD.
Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power, In Old Chicago, Blood and Sand, A Yank in the RAF) is a gallant, roguish cadet at a royal military academy in Spain. He is from the sleepy colony of California, where his father, Don Alejandro (Montagu Love, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk), serves as alcalde of the Los Angeles region. Like many young caballeros his age, Don Diego disdains the California life as boring and insufferably rustic; nevertheless, when he receives communication from his father he returns home, sure that his life will be insufferably mundane for the rest of his days.
However, when he arrives home in California, all is not as expected. His father no longer serves as alcalde; instead, the cruel, bumbling Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) has replaced him. The real power behind Quintero is Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Court Jester), a sinister, dashing villain who commands the local Spanish garrison.
While Diego's father and others fret and fume about the new alcalde, Diego feigns disinterest. As far as anyone can tell, his time in Madrid has made him effete and weak. Diego plays the fop skillfully, so that no one will suspect him when he chooses to take secret actions against Quintero and Pasquale.
When the mysterious, masked figure known only as Zorro begins challenging Quintero's corrupt rule, he immediately captures the hearts and imaginations of the peasant population, as well as the old, loyal dons. He also captures the heart of the mayor's niece, Lolita (Linda Darnell, Forever Amber, Blackbeard, The Pirate).
The Mark of Zorro is so well-loved, and gets so many of the little things right, that we tend to forget how thin the material really is. It is clearly the product of a more innocent time; the characters and their motivations are as black and white as Arthur C. Miller's cinematography. It is not a film that stands up to a lot of logical scrutiny; for example, Don Diego's ability to maintain his secret identity is clearly a product of the film's internal conventions and is only slightly less amazing than Clark Kent's ability to fool Lois Lane by simply wearing glasses.
Those objections being duly noted, it is important to recognize how many things this film gets absolutely right. Director Rouben Mamoulian first gained prominence as a director of musicals for both the stage and the screen; as Richard Schickel points out, some of Mamoulian's best set pieces in this film take on the feel of choreography and the timing of music. Mamoulian also does a good job of pacing the film, so that there is a nice balance among action, romantic, and comic relief scenes. Of course, in the eyes of some, the balance is too heavily in favor of romance and comic relief, along with plot-furthering exposition, leaving this adventure flick short on action.
The Mark of Zorro really succeeds or fails based on one's appraisal of Tyrone Power in the lead role. Blessed with an overdose of good looks and a sincere, affable personality, Power handles the role with ease and charm. Diego/Zorro is not a role that requires a lot of heavy lifting, but Power sells it well, and it thoroughly believable as the cocksure Diego in Madrid, the foppish Diego in California, and the daring black-clad hero.
Power is matched by the ever-dependable Basil Rathbone as his chief adversary. Rathbone is exactly what a film like this needs in a villain. His sharp intelligence and silky elegance make him formidable and threatening, yet refined and in some ways a more appealing character than the hero. Rathbone's good looks had earned him a career in the silent era as a leading man, but his career really took off with the advent of sound, which allowed his cultured voice and cerebral style its full expression. Thereafter, Rathbone built a career in deliciously villainous roles like Captain Pasquale or Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood, but also became well known as perhaps the definitive screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes.
The other great asset of both Rathbone and Power is their physical ability and their talent for swordplay. There are two duels that are generally considered the best in screen history: the climatic duel between Power and Rathbone in The Mark of Zorro, and the fabled fight between Rathbone and Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood. The duel between Power and Rathbone is a delight to anyone who loves a good action sequence or appreciates skill with a sword. Both men are excellent fencers, and were coached by the legendary Belgian fencing master and fight choreographer Fred Cavens. Mamoulian knew how to shoot a sequence between two skilled opponents, allowing them lots of long takes to show off their skills, rather than the hyperactive continual cutting one would expect from a more contemporary film. While I personally prefer the Flynn/Rathbone duel, the fight scene in this film is not to be missed.
The audiovisual presentation on this disc is disappointing. Picture quality in particular leaves a lot to be desired. The whites are generally very clean and bright, and blacks are solid, but there is an inordinate amount of extraneous picture noise. There appear to be nicks, scratches, and dirt carried over from the original print; it appears that Fox did not feel the need to do much restoration work on this film. Unfortunately, it also appears that they did not feel the need to pay much attention to the transfer of this existing print to DVD. In addition to the pre-existing physical film defects, the DVD image is full of digital defects. For example, in Chapter 4 where Diego meets Quintero and his wife Inez for the first time, pay attention to the window in the background, through which our hero gets his first glimpse of the lovely Lolita. The vertical bars between the panes of glass shimmer and fade in and out of existence while the whole room crawls with noise and distortions. At all times there appears to be rampant edge enhancement and aliasing. Light areas, such as the white epaulets on Pasquale's uniform or even the lighting on Tyrone Power's dark hair, tend to sparkle and shimmer against the background. Dark and shadowed areas lack definition. Tending to blur into a solid black mass. Overall there appears to be a lack of fine details, especially in subtle areas like the texture of Gale Sondergard's face. This poor transfer hardly seems like treatment that Fox should give to an entry in its "Studio Classics" line.
The audio, on the other hand, is relatively well-rendered. There are three options: English stereo, English mono, and Spanish mono. The mono track most closely approximates the original sound of the film, while the stereo track appears simply to split this one-channel audio into both front speakers. The mono track is relatively clear but sounds flat and carries a noticeable amount of crackle and hiss under the audio. The stereo track fares a bit better, providing some more clarity and resonance, albeit with just a bit of artificially-enhanced echo effect. The analog crackle and hiss are not as noticeable in the stereo track, but are still present.
Fox has done an adequate but unimpressive job with extra materials on this disc. The inclusion of a commentary track is always welcome, and I looked forward to hearing the insights of so noted a critic as Richard Schickel. However, his comments were not particularly insightful, and there tended to be quite lengthy gaps in his commentary where it appears that he simply had nothing to say. When he does speak up, it is generally to relate something fairly obvious about what has just happened on screen. For the most part, if you have paid attention to the movie, Schickel's comments will be mostly redundant. The exception would be the personal background information that he supplies on many of the principals involved, such as Gale Sondergaard and her experience with the blacklist, or the various approaches taken by director Rouben Mamoulian; these sorts of useful insights are few and far between, however.
The other piece of notable extra content is an episode of A&E's Biography entitled "Tyrone Power: The Last Idol." This episode meets A&E's usual standard of excellence for that series, and is an interesting look at Power's life and career.
Rounding out the disc is a collection of trailers for other movies in the Fox Studio Classics line. There are nine in all, including such classics as Anastasia, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and How Green Was My Valley.
In an otherwise simple and straightforward action film, some interesting subtexts can be explored. First and most obvious, not to mention most regrettable, is the treatment of the California Spanish peasantry. While the more well-to-do characters are depicted by mostly white actors, with either no discernible accent or a sort of refined mid-Atlantic pseudo-European smoothness, the peasants are shown as nothing short of Speedy Gonzales. When Diego arrives home and greets his father's faithful servants, including "good old Juan," who is, as Diego observes, "fat as ever," modern audiences will cringe a bit. When the Hispanic actor playing "good old Juan" grins at the comment, showing us a tooth that has obviously been blacked out to create the impression of a gap, the effect is even more disturbing. Such moments are not frequent in the picture, which is either good or bad depending on one's point of view: good, because the discomfort is limited and bad, because it shows the truly token status of those characters and actors. I'm not one to go in for a lot of political correctness, so if the depiction of the Spanish-Californian peasants bothered me even a little bit, it is bound to offend others to a far greater degree.
The other interesting bit of subtext is the feminization to which Diego subjects himself in order to avoid suspicion for his subversive activities. His feigned fey persona is an almost homosexualized caricature, which of course renders him completely harmless and non-threatening to the film's villains. It is an interesting perspective on the constructedness and interpretation of masculinity, and is definitely an indication of the times in which the film was made.
Finally, the amount of sexual innuendo in this film is quite interesting, considering the time in which it was made and the probable intended audience for a Zorro swashbuckler. All of it is deliciously subtle and heavily veiled, but certainly clear enough to let sharper audience members know that there is almost certainly some sort of impropriety going on between the Sondergard and Rathbone characters. The interplay between these characters is delightful, and owes a great deal to Rathbone's ability to speak volumes with a single look. It is further augmented by the direction and editing; Mamoulian knows exactly how long to hold a reaction shot to get a deeper point across without being heavy-handed about it.
The Mark of Zorro is a fine example of action and adventure from the golden age of Hollywood. No one should expect anything more here than light entertainment, but it is light entertainment of the highest quality.
Not guilty! The crafty Zorro is free to go and continue his fight for justice!
Fox, on the other hand, does not get off so lightly. Their indifferent treatment of the video transfer and mediocre special features are an injustice to all who love this classic adventure! If Señor Zorro were here, he would surely carve his trademark "Z" in their backsides!
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2003 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary by Film Critic Richard Schickel
* "Tyrone Power: The Last Idol" Episode of A&E's Biography
* Bonus Trailers