Johnston McCulley’s first Zorro novel, The Curse of Capistrano, was published in 1919 and has been adapted for the screen a number of times, the most notable version being the 1920 silent film The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro. Also worth a look is the 1940 movie of the same title, with Tyrone Power as the masked hero, which i the subject of today’s review.
Don Diego Vega is a dashing and courageous hussar officer and one of the most noted duellists in Madrid. He lives for pleasure, that is until he is recalled to his birthplace in California. His father is the Alcalde of Los Angeles. On his arrival he is surprised and disturbed to hear that the Alcalde is feared and hated. How can his be, when his father is the most noble and most just of men?
He soon discovers the answer. His father has been forced from office. The new Alcalde is Don Luis Quintero. Quintero is fat, lazy, corrupt and greedy. The real power in the land is the commander of his guard, Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone in one of his classic villain roles).
The obvious thing would be to challenge the new alcalde openly, but Don Diego is more intelligent and more subtle than that. He makes a quick decision. He will present himself as an effete foppish intellectual, a clown who delights in magic tricks.
This of course soon leads everyone in Los Angeles to despise Don Diego, and none more so than his old friend Fray Felipe, who might be a man of God but who is also a hot-headed fire-eater.
Meanwhile Don Diego has secretly taken on the role of the masked avenger of wrongs, Zorro. Reviled as a bandit by the authorities who place a price on his head, Zorro is adored by the common people, and also by those caballeros who are appalled by the cruelty, rapaciousness and dishonesty of Quintero and his henchmen.
There is a romantic complication (of course) - Don Luis’ daughter Lolita (Linda Darnell) falls in love with Zorro.
Sooner or later there will be a reckoning between Captain Esteban Pasquale and Zorro.
One slightly odd thing about this version is that Don Diego is not especially careful about revealing his secret identity as Zorro. This is a weakness of the film, but it’s a minor quibble really.
Johnston McCulley left the setting rather vague in his original story, as does the movie although it’s clearly either the late 18th or early 19th century
I’d always thought of Tyrone Power as the poor man’s Errol Flynn but he’s actually a rather good Zorro, equally convincing as both the man of action and as the foppish Don Diego. Basil Rathbone was always a superb villain, hiding his viciousness beneath a veneer of civilisation.
Linda Darnell was a very underrated actress and makes a fine heroine while the supporting cast is quite strong.
Director Rouben Mamoulian does a solid job while Arthur C. Miller’s black-and-white cinematography is excellent, as usual.
20th Century-Fox obviously spent quite a lot of money on this film and the production values are fairly lavish.
The Region 4 DVD boasts a very acceptable transfer although it’s short on extras.
This 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro is a classic swahbuckler and is recommended for fans of that genre.