His name, of course, is Zorro.
While Wonder Woman has lately been commanding media attention with her gaudy, sentimental take on the power of positive thinking, Zorro commits to social action without losing his nimble sense of humor. He’s just the kind of unifying hero that this new year calls for: the key creation of a man who mastered chaos with laughter — the king of silent Hollywood, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
It was Fairbanks who first turned this creature of the pulps into a towering legend. Fairbanks was the producer-star and uncredited co-writer of the box-office smash, “The Mark of Zorro,” which opened throughout the country in December 1920.
Fairbanks introduced moviegoers to a Spanish aristocrat in 1820s California — a blue blood who believes in blue-state values: fair play for the poor and protection of the innocent. He flouts arbitrary laws and challenges corrupt and sadistic officials.
The tale is simple: girl meets outlaw and outlaw brings down government. The villain is an ambitious commandant who executes an amoral governor’s orders by torturing priests, Native Americans and peons, terrorizing the underclass and ruining righteous families, including the heroine’s. He longs for her; she yearns for Zorro. Out of disguise, the masked outlaw who duels with a grin and woos with ardor, morphs into blasé upper-cruster Don Diego Vega, who suffers from overrefinement and chronic fatigue.
Fairbanks and his collaborators (director Fred C. Niblo, co-writer Eugene Miller) alchemized Anglo pulp writer Johnston McCulley’s 1919 serial, “The Curse of Capistrano,” into a jaunty epic about a master swordsman who funnels puckish humor and outrageous acrobatics into idealistic quests. Formulaic action scenes became riotous steeplechases as Zorro surmounted obstacles with somersaults and handsprings, sometimes pausing for a snack.
Like Tennyson’s Sir Galahad, Zorro has the strength of 10 because his heart is pure. He’s also irreverent and mischievous. His sparkle exudes hipness: He embraces the New World’s egalitarian ethos while his enemies defend the feudal past.
Zorro lifted spirits in the 1920s. In the 2020s, his ebullience can generate ecstatic highs.
During Fairbanks’s previous run as the parody hero of contemporary action comedies like “His Picture in the Papers,” fans came to think of him as “Doug,” a tribute to his offhand elegance — like Fred Astaire’s, a triumph of talent and willpower. Doug transports this knockabout grace into “The Mark of Zorro.” With his light heart and “can-do” demeanor — qualities the world embraced as quintessentially American — Zorro soon dominated action-film iconography. Cinema would never be the same.
As the pioneer of two gigantic genres — the swashbuckler and the superhero movie — “The Mark of Zorro” earned its entry into the National Film Registry in 2015. The only wonder is why it didn’t place sooner. It both set a cinematic template for timeless champions like Robin Hood and pumped blood into the brave new pop-art form of adventure comics.
For a century, a steady succession of live-action and animated, big- and small-screen Zorros of multiple nationalities, including Antonio Banderas, Tyrone Power, Alain Delon and Guy Williams, have stoked Zorro’s popularity from the Midwest to the Far East, from Iceland to Africa. He has conquered the imaginations of figures as different as the Chilean-Californian novelist Isabel Allende, who created an Indigenous origin story for him in “Zorro” (2005), and Quentin Tarantino and Matt Wagner, whose comic book “Django/Zorro” (collected as a graphic novel in 2015) depicts Black bounty-hunter Django and an aging Diego teaming up to defeat a despotic Arizona empire-builder. (Actor-comedian-writer Jerrod Carmichael has reportedly been working on a “Django/Zorro” script, though it hasn’t yet been tied to a studio.)
Zorro has outwitted avaricious governors, truculent men-at-arms and evil oligarchs trying to seize California’s riches and foment discord between Mexico and the United States. He has even withstood charges of cultural appropriation. In 1998, Chicano writer-director Luis Valdez (“Zoot Suit”), in a Salon broadside headlined “The Face of Zorro,” dubbed Fairbanks’s Zorro a defender of “white, wealthy Californios.” Valdez lampooned 1998’s “The Mask of Zorro” for selecting an Englishman, Anthony Hopkins, to play Diego/Zorro, and a Spaniard, Antonio Banderas, to portray his Mexican successor, a fictional brother of the legendary rebel-bandit Joaquin Murrieta. Culture Clash’s Herbert Siguenza also criticized Zorro, in a 2005 Los Angeles Times article, as a “Eurocentric” reimagining of “real bandidos [like Murrieta] defending the rights of native Californians.” But he still admires Zorro’s liberation ideology: “fighting for the rights of the oppressed . . . the same philosophy as Zapata and Che Guevara.”
The movie-mad writers and artists who created the first comic books patterned superheroes after Fairbanks’s dual protagonist. When Superman and Batman doffed their costumes to become Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, they revealed personae as ineffectual as Don Diego, the ennui-ridden, apolitical dandy who delights in playing parlor tricks with his handkerchief. Batman co-creator Bob Kane wrote in his 1998 autobiography “Batman and Me”: “The rich foppish Don Diego, Zorro’s alter ego, inspired Bruce Wayne’s facade of being a bored, wealthy idler and playboy.”
Bill Finger, the silent partner who wrote Batman’s scripts, reportedly said he wanted to combine Fairbanks with Sherlock Holmes, the Shadow and Doc Savage. In action, Superman and Batman resembled the Zorro who is both an indefatigable crusader and an ebullient comic artist: In Zorro’s case, that means turning duels into witty improvs, then signing them with a Z slashed on a wall, a door, a villain’s cheek or the seat of a buffoon’s pants.
When Superman artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel gave a rare joint interview in 1983, Siegel said, “I loved ‘The Mark of Zorro.’ ” Shuster confessed that he borrowed Fairbanks’s attitude for Superman: “He always stood with his hands on his hips and his feet spread apart, laughing — taking nothing seriously.” Doubtless Fairbanks would have preferred Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man to today’s glum Supermans and Batmans.
In “The Mark of Zorro,” Fairbanks has fun with the narrative mechanics that would change America’s pop landscape. Lois Lane spurning Clark Kent for Superman echoes beautiful noblewoman Lolita Pulido rejecting Don Diego and swooning for Zorro. Watching Zorro lead his stallion through camouflaged storm-cellar doors to an underground lair that connects via hidden passageways to Diego’s hacienda, it’s impossible not to think of Bruce Wayne speeding his Batmobile into a subterranean Batcave beneath Wayne Manor, or the Green Arrow setting up his Arrowcave in an abandoned warehouse.
Fairbanks understood the need to surround a hero with archvillains like the cruel and petty Captain Ramon, allies like his swaggering fellow caballeros and semi-farcical characters in between, such as the bombastic Sergeant Gonzalez (who became endearing Sergeant Garcia in the Disney TV version). The star also saw the commercial and artistic possibilities of offering new gimmicks each time out, adding the whip to Zorro’s arsenal in “Don Q, Son of Zorro” (1925), then using it to flick out the flame from a cigarette, slice a royal invitation into note cards, trap a stampeding bull and lasso opponents or swing over them like Tarzan.
In 1919, when McCulley conceived Zorro (Spanish for “fox”), the writer drew on fact-inspired legends like (of course) Robin Hood and the avenging bandido Murrieta, as well as novelist Baroness Orczy’s entirely fictional Scarlet Pimpernel, the secret identity of the British popinjay who saves French aristocrats from the Reign of Terror. Fairbanks put an American spin on those influences. His Zorro dedicates himself to the equitable treatment of every citizen and rouses his fellow caballeros to practice a democratic form of noblesse oblige.
The emotional and moral bandwidth Fairbanks built into the part gave creative leeway to spirited successors like Banderas and director Martin Campbell, and Guy Williams and the Disney TV team. From 1936’s “The Bold Caballero” (the first Zorro talkie and the only Zorro film without Zorro in the title) to 2005’s “The Legend of Zorro,” Zorro has never required oversized bodysuits and digital enhancements to give audiences a charge. (Fairbanks’s and Tyrone Power’s costumes were as tight as matadors’ taleguillas.) The character exudes gusto and sex appeal, and a churning, forward-leaning drive.
Banderas brings Fairbanks-like zest to “The Mask of Zorro”as the fictional Alejandro Murrieta, who becomes Diego’s Zorro-in-training to avenge his brother Joaquin’s death (making Banderas the first Spanish actor to play Zorro). When seething peasant Murrieta takes up the man-in-black’s twin role — with an aristocratic nom de guerre and mask, sword and whip — hilarity ensues. He barely keeps passion from bursting out of his frilled shirt and tapered suits.
In Tarantino’s introduction to “Django/Zorro,” he calls Diego a man who has learned to love his own “foppish mannerisms.” Tarantino says, “The days are gone” of Diego “pretending to be effete.” But they were gone back in 1925, when Fairbanks made his only Zorro sequel. In “Don Q, Son of Zorro,” Fairbanks stars as both the aging champion and his son, Cesar de Vega — a daredevil by instinct who unites the best parts of Zorro and his father’s Diego identity.
Guided by Zorro’s seamless knitting of savoir-faire and moral uplift, the producers of the Disney TV series made it one of the cleverest and most well-crafted, family-targeted shows of the 1950s. Williams, a former model of Sicilian heritage (and thus the first Latin, if not Latino, in the role), played Zorro as if to the lair and manor born, embodying a happy-go-lucky élan vital. The series ran for 78 regular episodes, plus four one-hour specials on Disney’s anthology series in 1960 and 1961. (An unrelated Family Channel series in the early 1990s ran for 88 episodes.) Disney reinvigorated the hero as a global juggernaut, with deep followings in Latin America and Europe, where Alain Delon was debonair and flamboyant in 1975’s “Zorro,” filmed in Spain. (A half-dozen Zorros, including Fairbanks; Powers and Frank Langella, who headlined “Mark of Zorro” remakes in 1940 and 1974, respectively; plus Delon, Banderas and Williams, are available today on multiple streaming services worldwide. McCulley kept publishing Zorro stories until he died, in 1958.)
Through much of the 20th century, Zorro served as the Spanish poster boy for “the melting pot” — once the ruling image of a liberal America, in which each racial and ethnic group contributed to the country’s cultural stew and subscribed to its ideals. The rise of multiculturalism and the concept of America as “the salad bowl” has led to more nuanced interpretations of Zorro’s origins, both in Banderas’s movies and in Allende’s sprawling novel, “Zorro,” where he’s the son of a female Shoshone warrior and a Spanish military man.
The Disney theme song crystallizes the core appeal “of the fox so cunning and free,” calling him a “bold renegade” and “friend of the weak, and the poor and the meek; this very unique Señor Zorro.” He epitomizes the old-fashioned swashbuckler whose stories stress, in the words of film historian Brian Taves, “the purity of the hero’s motives, his physical and mental agility, impeccable manners and often witty speech.”
Many Americans yearn for escapist heroes of this caliber. In our era of social dissolution, the timing could hardly be better for celebrating a homegrown icon of justice and bravery who exemplifies physical and mental dexterity and virtue — a man who stands for right making might.