Based on “The Curse of Capistrano” by Johnston McCulley, “The Mark of Zorro” is a classic film adaptation of the iconic hero, ranking among some of the greater Zorro films to date, including the Douglas Fairbanks silent version.
Don Diego de la Vega, played by Tyrone Power, is a young and fiercely talented swordsman training in Spain. He’s soon summoned home to California by his father who has stepped down as Alcalde and been replaced by Luis Quintero. Quintero, his successor, is greedy and corrupt; taxing the peasants out of all their money and, as his enforcer Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone) enjoys, torturing them when they don’t pay. Diego decides that he has to do something to save the poor people of Los Angeles and goes about doing so as a masked bandit called, Zorro.
Part of what separates this adaptation from the many others is the noticeable lack of the costumed vigilante. The bulk of the movie instead follows Diego as he puts on an act to deceive others into thinking he’s not Zorro. It might sound like a negative aspect of the movie, but Tyrone Power is just great as the title character. He plays Diego Vega as a clever and restless young man, and being Zorro seems like it’s a lot of fun for him.
In public, he acts like a snobbish and cowardly elitist. Everything seems to exhaust or frighten him, but it barely masks how obvious it is that he mocks all of those around him. People tell him secrets because, why not? He’s such an inconsequential little man that it couldn’t possibly matter what he knows. It’s a lot of fun watching him manipulate Quintero’s entire household in order to accomplish his goals, and the dialogue is well written and witty.
In order to get Quintero to step down as Alcalde and reappoint his father, he pressures him in every way from all angles. He psychologically tortures the man as both Zorro and Diego, he plants the idea of moving to Spain in his wife, and he allows himself to be betrothed to his niece, Lolita (although lucky for him he fell in love with her anyway). There's a great dinner party scene that includes a romantic dance between Diego and Lolita (Linda Darnell) which was directly reenacted in the 1998 film, “The Mask of Zorro”.
Though I said the majority of the movie follows the exploits of Diego, that’s not to say that Zorro doesn’t appear. It’s just that his scenes in full costume are few and when he’s in costume, the mask is also noticeably inconsistent. For whatever reason (it’s not explained), Zorro has two masks in this movie. One's the classic eye mask that he usually wears and the other is a black cover for the lower half of his face. It doesn’t really impact the action scenes in any way, but it’s a strange visual. It made me wonder if it was just to give Tyrone Power more face time on-screen.
As to be expected from director Rouben Mamoulian (director of the 1931 version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”), the action scenes are pretty spectacular and while there are some impressive stunts, one of which involves Zorro riding a horse leaping off a high bridge into the river below, the real highlight is the duel between Diego (again not in costume) and Pasquale. Basil Rathbone always makes a great villain, especially when it involves fencing, and from his first scene Pasquale is shown with his sword drawn. Their duel was inevitable and extremely worth the wait. Their entire fight sequence takes place in a small room, so there’s little space to move around.
Compare it to Rathbone’s duel with Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. They have one of the most memorable fencing duels in cinema history as they fight all throughout the castle, going up and down stairs, knocking over tables, etc. In this film there’s nowhere to go. The two characters hack away at each other as fast and as hard as they can within the confined space. It’s brutal, precise, and amazingly well choreographed considering the breathtaking speeds in which they strike. Watching them fence so well in such close proximity is exciting and easily on par with some of the best sword fights in film. There's no other way to describe it. It's just that amazing.
Even though the title character has less screen time than one might hope, “The Mark of Zorro” is still a great swashbuckling adventure. The acting is good, the action scenes are memorable, and the story is highly entertaining. It's a fun adventure for an iconic swashbuckling hero. A classic in every regard.