The Mark of Zorro (1940)

D: Rouben Mamoulian
S: Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone

Twentieth Century Fox's response to the Warner Bros. megahit The Adventures of Robin Hood is a remake of the 1920 swashbuckler with Douglas Fairbanks Snr. (from Johnston McCulley's original story). A young Californian nobleman returns from Spain to find the people oppressed and terrified by Governor J. Edward Bromberg and right hand man Basil Rathbone. Adopting the manner of a harmless fop to bewilder his would-be enemies, he crusades for justice in private as the masked hero Zorro: the fox. Meanwhile he pursues a romance with Linda Darnell, daughter of the Governor, who is in love with Zorro but repulsed by his alter-ego.

A clear inspiration for Bob Kane's Batman, Rouben Mamoulian's take on the venerable hero is generally lively and entertaining, though it promises more than it finally delivers. After a wonderful opening training montage (featuring rows of young men fencing in time with Alfred Newman's Oscar-nominated score), and a nice build up which establishes the essential theme of social justice which motivates the action which follows, the film slows down somewhat in the romantic scenes before rising to a series of enjoyable action moments (including a wonderful duel between Power and Rathbone) which conclude the narrative.

Power is quite effective in the lead, playing both sides of his character with equal relish. His opposition is somewhat unsteady, with Bromberg oscillating between buffon and meglomaniac and Rathbone nicely chilling but underused. There is an amusing turn by Eugene Palette as a sympathetic Padre (who even has a brief swordfight), and Darnell aquits herself well as the love interest.

The film is often too close to Robin Hood for comfort though, and a certain amount of the flavour of ethnic Zorro is absent. The character actually abandons his familiar all-black garb before the climax, and fights the final battles as a generic swashbuckling hero, which is a curious point of interest. It does manage to suggest the importance of a proper moral basis for heroic action however, and Power looks well when he does don the mask. It may not be the best version of the tale seen on screen, but is entertaining and maintains a square-jawed heroism which was especially relevant in the political climate in which the film was made.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.