A few years ago I reviewed Blood and Sand, another film starring Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Aside from the fantastic pairing of Power and Darnell (which occurred in four films), the fun and exciting adventure story, and the superior supporting cast, I think what I love about the 1940 film The Mark of Zorro the most is what I loved also about Blood and Sand: the direction by Mamoulian.
It may not be 100% authentic, but it FEELS authentic in the way he portrays Spanish and old California culture. His women are as interesting as his men, they are not there just to be rescued. There’s humor but also serious ideas underneath the adventure.
Then there are the action scenes.
There have been lots of great sword fights on screen, but I doubt you’ll find many to rival the ones in this version of The Mark of Zorro.
The Mark of Zorro opens with young California aristocrat Diego Vega (Power) in Spain learning the arts of war. His reputation as a swordsman is so well known he is constantly challenged to duels. To his dismay, he is suddenly called home by his father, the mayor (alcalde) of Los Angeles (Montagu Love). Certain he is going to be buried in a sedate and boring life, he tosses his sword so it sticks to a wooden beam, assuming he will never need it again.
When he arrives home, he is appalled to hear people say the mayor is a cruel despot. Finally arriving at his old home, he meets Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone) who informs him his father is no longer mayor and has been replaced by Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg).
His father and the other caballeros are disturbed by Quintero’s cruelty towards the peasant class, but they are reluctant to go against him. Diego voices boredom with the entire discussion, which angers his childhood mentor Friar Felipe (Eugene Pallette).
Soon after, a man in a mask who calls himself “Zorro” begins robbing and terrorizing Quintero and his minions. Hoping to get the former alcalde on his side to protect his position, Quintero proposes a marriage between Diego and his niece Lolita (Darnell). While flirting with Quintero’s wife (Gale Sondergaard) Diego agrees to marry Lolita. He reveals to Lolita he is Zorro and his foppish manners are a ruse to fool his enemies. She is delighted at the thought of marrying a man brave enough to go against her uncle.
Finally revealed as Zorro, Diego has a duel with Pasquale. Both his Zorro persona and Diego’s willingness to fight the status quo inspire both the caballeros and peons to revolt. Quintero is overthrown. Now planning a happy and sedate life with Lolita, Diego once again throws his sword away.
It’s so interesting to watch this film at this particular point in time, because Diego Vega steps back into his hometown and confronts a horrifying dystopian reality. The inaction of his father, who seems a good and honorable man, is astonishingly familiar these days. Diego not only uses his skill as a swordsman, but wits and guile to bring justice back to his community. He is willing to debase himself, allowing people to believe him a lazy, narcissistic dope in order to bring about what he originally hopes will be a peaceful change of power. When revolution is the only answer, he leads both the upper and lower classes in the good fight.
It’s a lovely fantasy. The best part is it’s so well executed here, and again, I give Mamoulian a lot of the credit. One of the things I don’t love so much about one of the other great swashbuckling movies, Captain Blood, is the long first act where not much swashing happens. Here, we see soldiers practicing their swordplay and we get the promise of excitement right away. The pacing is excellent. The chase scenes, the fight scenes, all so well done.
Before we get to the amazing sword fight between Power and Rathbone, let’s talk about my favorite scene in the whole film:
When Diego comes to dinner to court Lolita, as part of his plan to bring down Quintero, poor Lolita is appalled by Diego’s insipid personality. Then he agrees to show her aunt the new dance steps from Spain. He asks Lolita to partner him.
In my opinion, this is one of the greatest dance scenes on film. First, the song, “Sombrero Blanco” is slightly dirty. It’s euphemistically talking about sex. The singer is complaining about a woman who is indifferent. He asks her to let him put his hat on her and let him hold her in his arms while he sings her asleep. (The words “arru, arru, arru” are meant to sound like the cooing of doves, but perhaps in this context it could be the sound by a woman being satisfied sexually.)
The dance moves by Diego are so stunning that for the first time Lolita is captivated by him. “I never knew it could be like this.” (No allusion to sex there, right?) “I found it rather tiring,” he responds. Humiliated, she leaves the party.
It’s like he’s insulting her sexually.
The scene is romantic, sexy, and witty, as Diego courts Lolita, promising her passion, and at the same time fools the rest of the company into believing he is a useless fop. (Compare it to the dance scene in the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro, which is much more blatantly sexual yet not even remotely as sexy or effective as this one.)
Now on to the great sword fight between Power and Rathbone. Basil Rathbone was a superb swordsman and he praised Power for his swordplay (maybe even dissing Errol Flynn a bit in the process). I love it that they are so well matched and you kind of worry that Pasquale might prevail at certain points. The choreography and direction are stunning and I wouldn’t be surprised if many directors have taken inspiration from it since then.
There are a lot of versions of the Zorro story, and there are fans of the Douglas Fairbanks 1920 version who would disagree. But I think this one is the best. To me, it’s close to perfection when it comes to swashbuckling adventure.