The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The highlight of last week was—no, not an old film that I watched at home, but a new film that I watched in a cinema theatre. The Artist. A couple of friends, both people with excellent taste in cinema, recommended it to me. So I wheedled my husband into coming to watch The Artist.

And, oh. What a film. What a wonderful combination of humour, emotion, heart-breaking sorrow—and hope. It’s been a long, long time since I saw a new film that made me gush so much. (Yes, well; that probably also had a lot to do with the fact that the gorgeous Jean Dujardin is very gushworthy).

Anyway, the reason I’m reviewing the 1920 The Mark of Zorro here (and not The Artist) is that no matter how charmingly ‘old’ The Artist may be, it’s technically a new film. And I nit-pick about things like that. But there’s a connection between the two films. Firstly, of course, the fact that both are silent. Secondly, Jean Dujardin’s character in The Artist is a silent film superstar named George Valentin—who was modelled on Douglas Fairbanks, the star of The Mark of Zorro.
Thirdly, there’s a scene in The Artist where a now-failed George Valentin watches an old swashbuckler in which he starred.

That scene came on—obviously from an actual silent film, slightly jerky and the print not as sharp as that of The Artist—and I grabbed my husband’s arm and whispered, “That’s The Mark of Zorro!” They’d morphed Dujardin’s face where Fairbanks’s face should’ve been, but I’d have recognised that particular scene anywhere.

So, The Mark of Zorro it is. A film that’s close to a hundred years old now, not in the same league as some of the other silent films I’ve watched, but an enjoyable swashbuckler nevertheless. And it’s a good example of the sort of films that Douglas Fairbanks excelled at (and which George Valentin in The Artist specialised in, too).

The Mark of Zorro begins with a succession of intertitles which establish the background: in Capistrano, Southern California, the poor natives and the priests have been oppressed and ground into the dirt for far too long. Now a mysterious masked stranger has come to their rescue. He calls himself Zorro, and has being going around doling out punishment to the perpetrators of all this injustice. This includes marking the evildoer with Zorro’s signature—a Z.

The governor has decided to set out for Capistrano to investigate the matter for himself. In the meantime, though, Sergeant Gonzales (Noah Beery) has been going about boasting that Zorro had better keep out of Gonzales’s way, otherwise Gonzales will carve ‘Gonzales’ all over Zorro.

In the midst of this bragging, a young nobleman, Don Diego Vega (Douglas Fairbanks) arrives. Don Diego has returned three months earlier from Spain, where he had gone to study. He’s a limp-wristed, silly creature who drags his feet, snorts snuff, amuses himself by playing with a scarf, and generally seems like a halfwit.

Don Diego takes himself off after a while, and Gonzales goes back to plotting the downfall of Zorro. One of his men suggests that the best way to bait Zorro is by ill-treating a native, so Gonzales does that—he knocks down a servant at the inn where they’re drinking.
And sure enough, while the man is still grovelling for mercy—Zorro appears. Zorro doesn’t attack Gonzales, though; instead, he goes to the wall, where he sees the notice Gonzales’s boss, Captain Ramon, has posted:

Zorro whips out his sword, cuts the notice to shreds, and leaves his own mark instead. He then proceeds to take on Gonzales in a swordfight that swiftly becomes an utter disaster for Gonzales: Zorro runs rings around the sergeant (Gonzales wails: “How can I fight a man when he won’t stand still?”). He leaves his mark on Gonzales’s trouser seat; he punctures a wine skin above Gonzales’s head, drenching the sergeant; he sends Gonzales’s sword tip plumb bang into the ceiling, out of Gonzales’s reach… and has a glass of wine while waiting for Gonzales to get his sword back.

After having sufficiently humiliated the bumbling sergeant, Zorro comes back home, to his faithful mute servant Bernardo (Tote du Crow). He takes off his mask, and we discover that Zorro is—Diego!

Diego has barely changed into his everyday clothes when he’s summoned by his father, who gives Diego the news that he’s decided it’s time for Diego to get married. He’s even picked out the girl: Lolita (Marguerite de la Motte), the daughter of Don Carlos Pulido (Charles Hill Mailes). The Pulidos are blue-blooded as they come, but are so poor, they’ve gratefully accepted Diego as a prospective son-in-law.
[This last bit, told to Diego by his father, is hardly a tactful thing to say. Makes me feel sorry for poor Diego].

As per his father’s instructions, Diego goes to the Pulidos’ home the next day, to pay court to Lolita. He is his usual weak-kneed, lazy self, sprawling at the table and trying to amuse her by showing her scarf tricks. Lolita is not impressed at all. In fact, she’s downright repelled. (“He isn’t a man, he’s a fish!” she tells her mother). But he’s also invited the Pulidos to come and visit his home, so Lolita’s parents decide to accept that invitation. It’ll give Lolita a chance to see all the grandeur of the house she’ll be occupying once she marries Diego.

When her fiancé has taken his leave, Lolita goes out into the garden and drapes herself over a bench, bemoaning her fate… and who should turn up there, but a mysterious stranger whom she immediately realises is Zorro!
Zorro begins to woo Lolita with consummate charm [and rather flowery poetry]:

And Lolita falls in love with him.

But their bliss is very short-lived. A bunch of troopers, led by Captain Ramon (Robert McKim), rides up to the Pulidos’s home, and Lolita urges Zorro to flee.
[There’s a back story here, re: Ramon’s arrival. The Pulidos, seeing Zorro in the garden with Lolita, have summoned Ramon and his men. Now that Ramon arrives and begins badmouthing Zorro, Lolita’’s mum looks disapproving. She can’t make up her mind, the mad old cow that she is.]

Just as the Pulidos and Ramon are debating the Zorro question, the masked hero himself appears at the window. Long enough to sneer at Ramon, issue a challenge at him, fling a rose to Lolita—and vanish.
The next day, the Pulidos go off to visit Diego’s house. He’d told them he wouldn’t be home, but his servants will look after them.

…which is all very well, except that Ramon arrives while Lolita’s parents are out. And he immediately starts making passes at Lolita.
Thankfully, even if Diego isn’t in the vicinity, Zorro is—and he leaps in to protect Lolita’s virtue.

When will Lolita realise that this man:

And this one:

…are actually the same? When will Zorro be able to rid Capistrano of Ramon, Gonzales and their like? How will a single masked crusader be able to overcome so many?

What I liked about this film:

Douglas Fairbanks in swashbuckling mode. Yes, I know swashbuckling was what he did, but you have to watch this film to see how beautifully he did it.  As Zorro, he leaps, runs, swings, wields a sword and fights as if every move was choreographed. He’s unbelievably graceful. And the contrast  between Zorro and Diego is fascinating: as Diego, Fairbanks is all that Zorro isn’t: Diego slumps, he’s round-shouldered and sleepy-eyed and just too much of a dimwit for anybody to bother with. His body language is the absolute opposite of Zorro’s.

The humour. There’s a wry sense of humour in a lot of Diego’s dialogues, and sprinkled through the fight scenes are cheeky little jokes that made me grin. For instance, there’s a scene where Zorro is being chased by a group of troopers. He goes leaping over a pig sty, and the troopers follow—but one can’t; his belt gets stuck in a bit of wood projecting above the rail of the sty. So Zorro shakes off his pursuers, doubles back and helpfully sets the man free—all without the man realising who his ‘rescuer’ was.

What I didn’t like:

The story begins to drag a little after the midway mark, with some fairly pointless meandering happening. It’s not unbearable, but I did find my attention beginning to wander.

Some of the acting (especially that of the women) is a little too theatrical.

Comparisons, comparisons:

This had to happen. And no, I’m not comparing The Mark of Zorro to The Artist. I’m comparing it to The Mark of Zorro (1940), starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone. The basics of the story are the same (even the names of the main characters are the same) but there are some differences in how the story plays out. For instance, in the later film, Lolita is an orphan and lives with her uncle (a puppet official, controlled by his evil aide) and her aunt, who is soon infatuated with Diego.

The 1940 film has much less humour than was there in the 1920 one, but it’s a sleeker, better scripted film. For example, instead of ‘telling’ us why Zorro emerged as a crusader (which is how the 1920 film begins), the 1940 films begins by showing how Diego came home from Spain, and what he saw and heard that made him decide to become Zorro. More effective, in my opinion. The 1940 film also has fewer digressions.

Where the 1920 film does win is with Douglas Fairbanks’s athleticism. Tyrone Power is very good with a sword (Basil Rathbone famously said that “Tyrone Power could fence Errol Flynn into a box!”)—but Fairbanks is a joy to behold as he leaps and runs and whirls about.  Incidentally, Fairbanks did all his stunts; the only film for which a double was used for Fairbanks’s stunt was The Gaucho.

So, which film is better? Much as I liked Fairbanks, I’d still say the 1940 film. The adventure and romance come together perfectly there, the scripting is good, and it’s an amazingly enjoyable film. Plus, it’s virtually impossible to beat Tyrone Power for sheer gorgeousness. Fairbanks really doesn’t stand a chance in that department.

The Mark of Zorro (1920) is in the public domain, so you can watch it legally online. Click here for a Youtube link.


48 thoughts on “The Mark of Zorro (1920)

  1. This is the first silent movie you have reviewed, haven’t you?
    I like such movies! Double identities, rescuer of the poor, comedy all in one! Wonderful!
    You have recommended The Artist so warmly, I will have to see it!
    I hope I haven’t missed it already!


    • No, Harvey; this isn’t the first silent film I reviewed, though it is the first silent Hollywood film I’ve reviewed. The other silent films I’ve reviewed are Metropolis:

      And Bronenosets Potyomkin:

      If you like the combination of double identities, rescuer of the poor, romance and comedy, you should watch both versions of this one – and you should see The Scarlet Pimpernel. 1936, as far as I recall – it starred Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon. Relatively little comedy in that, but good double identity stuff. :-)

      And you must watch The Artist. It’s wonderful!


      • How could I forget your review of Metropolis and Battleship Potemkin! We discussed it!
        Mera bheja masoor ki dal to misuse an old saying.
        I have seen Scarlet Pimpernel. It must be years since I saw it. Leslie Howard didn’t impress me though. I think I still had his role in Gone With The Wind in mind.
        I just saw that the theatres are playing The Artist in the afternoon already.That means it has been running very long.


        • Mera bheja masoor ki dal to misuse an old saying.


          I’m not a Leslie Howard fan either, but I like the Scarlet Pimpernel story very much – the double identity trope fascinates me. I wish there were more films that used it (though I suppose one could stretch that to some of the superhero films – Superman, Spiderman, Batman and so on – where the ‘wimp’ is very different from the superhero, so much so that the heroine doesn’t get to know for a long time that it’s him). I suppose putting that trope against a historical background is what appeals to me!


  2. Jean Dujardin did thank Douglas Fairbanks for his Oscar :-)

    What??!! Harvey??!!!
    You haven’t seen The Artist? There should be a law making it compulsory to watch this film and improve audience tastes :-D
    It’s been playing for over a month here (still 3 shows, maybe the last week for that), and I’ve already seen it 3 times. LOL

    Jean Dujardin is such a treat to watch, so is Bernice for that matter, but we are talking about swoon worthy/gushworthy male actor here ;-)

    Haven’t seen The Mark of Zoro DO, but will read your review (I got distracted at the beginning itself, so didn’t finish reading), and then think about watching it online. But WOW, to have remembered that scene as being from The Mark of Zoro. Hats off to you.


    • I stopped watching the Oscar awards ceremony years ago, so I missed that one – but after I’d watchedThe Artist, i rushed home and searched Youtube for Jean Dujardin’s acceptance speech. ;-) I later read an interview in which he talked about how he also watched a lot of Gene Kelly movies to get the dancing and the body language right.

      I don’t think I’ll be able to persuade my husband to come along to watch The Artist a second time (I don’t know how fulfilling it is to sit through a movie next to a wife who’s ooh-ing and aah-ing at the man onscreen!)… but I’ll see if I can tag along with my sister and niece; I know both of them wanted to watch it.

      By the way, recognising that particular scene from The Mark of Zorro in The Artist was a complete fluke. I happened to have seen only that scene when I’d been looking on Youtube for the 1940 film, a couple of years ago. The scene must’ve really stayed with me, because I recognised it at once!


    • “What??!! Harvey??!!!
      You haven’t seen The Artist? There should be a law making it compulsory to watch this film and improve audience tastes”

      Guilty as charged!
      But I will make amends!
      Abhi to jaana hi padega. But who will go with me for a show at 3:45 pm?


  3. >I stopped watching the Oscar awards ceremony years ago, so I missed that one

    It was only my passionate interest in this film that made me search the morning after the awards for the results, and later to see him getting it, and to hear his speech on youtube.
    The first link I found was…LOL…silent, with no sound. Seems like some one has a sense of humour. On further search I found the one with sound.
    Otherwise I have never watched any Oscar function ever :-)
    I hardly ever see those films up for awards.


    • Heh! Whoever put a muted clip of Dujardin’s acceptance speech certainly had a wicked sense of humour! :-D

      I don’t end up seeing too many of the films up for awards either – I think the last one I saw was The King’s Speech, and that long after it had won its clutch of awards. And Colin Firth – whose acting I really like – was a major reason for my watching that film, though I ended up liking it a lot.


      • Ah yes. Last year I had seen The KIng’s Speech before it got Colin his Oscar award. So there too I paid attention to the results. Also for Slumdog Millionaire. Hmmm can’t think of any other film to have roused my interest in the Oscars at all..
        I find all that red carpet thing so stupid and silly with the women and their hand on hip thing which the ones in Bollywood like to copy and look even sillier :-D


        • I haven’t seen Slumdog Millionaire yet. I guess I must’ve been one of the few film buffs on this planet who hasn’t watched it, but anyway…

          That ‘hand on hip’ (not to mention this year’s classic Angelina Jolie pose, leg poised in that far-from-classy way) is silly, I agree. One thing I found very amusing was the proliferation of Angelina Jolie ‘leg spoofs’ that came in the wake of her pose. One of the funniest spoofs I saw had a photoshopped photo of Michelangelo’s David, with one leg stretched in the Jolie pose. :-D


  4. Hmmm, since hubby generally hates to go to the movies with me (because of my wondering aloud about certain things in the movie!), I will have to wait till son and DIL come here so we can order the movie online and watch The Artist! I will have to see if I can persuade some friends to go with me on a weekend, otherwise! Thanks for the passionate approval and recommendation, DO!


    • I can sympathise with your husband, Lalitha! I find it terribly annoying when I’m sitting next to someone who keeps up a running commentary on the film all through. And my husband and I always have the bad luck to end up next to someone who does that, or has noisy children, or goes on chatting on their cellphone. Sometimes – when it’s an action film that doesn’t require much brainwork, or if it’s a Hindi film with much singing and dancing – it doesn’t matter too much. But at times, when you’re trying to focus on the dialogue, it can be very irritating!

      My worst experience was last week, when I watched The Artist. You’d think people talking during a silent film (where you don’t need to concentrate on dialogues) wouldn’t make a difference, but it actually was worse than when there is dialogue. It’s horribly distracting. There were two couples near us whom I nearly got up and slapped, I was so annoyed.

      Whew. Venting over. Watch The Artist, if you can! It’s really a gem. :-)


  5. Ah, The Mask of Zorro. Haven’t seen this one, but did catch the 1940 Tyrone Power vehicle – which, by the way, was truer to the legend than the 1920 one. Do you happen to remember the Zorro comics that were available when we were young?


    • Zorro comics were available when we were kids? – And I never knew! Am feeling very cheated. :-(

      Actually, I think that may have happened because back then, my father was posted in places lik Bhopal, Gwalior and Srinagar (none of which offered much scope for exploring children’s literature beyond Archie’s and Amar Chitra Katha. I remember the daily newspaper strips of Mandrake and The Phantom, but no Zorro.

      I am glad to know the 1940 film was relatively true to the original story. One more reason to love that film! :-D


    • The Zorro comics! I had nearly forgotten them. Thanks for reminding Anu! I found them boring at that time. I was much into Tin Tin at that time (even now, there is nothing like Tin Tin).


      • Poor Madhu. You’ve had a deprived childhood (and you never even knew it!) :) Don Diego de la Vega, that was his name in the comics, though I think it started out as plain Don Diego Vega. He was also referred to as Zorro, the fox.

        @harvey, Tintin and Asterix – did you never read Asterix & Obelix? If not, you’ve also had a deprived childhood. LOL


        • Read Asterix and Obelix as well, but nothing could beat Tintin!
          You know this is what troubles me at times. I/We practically grew on foreign literature except for those wonderful Amar Chitra Katha comics and Chandamama.
          Looking back, I think it would have done me good to have read some local literature as well. In that sense, yeah, one could say I have had a deprived childhood.
          It has its advantages and disadvantages. ON one hand I can talk about Enid Blyton, Hergé, Gosciny, Disney & co with people here, but on the other, I have nothing to show from the original culture (whatever that means) I come from.
          Globalisation started early, didn’t it?


          • Yes, globalisation did start early as far as literature was concerned, even if the golden arches and Pepsi came much later!

            I have to admit to having read a lot of Amar Chitra Katha when I was young – loads and loads of them – so I can’t complain of my childhood books having been more Western-oriented than Indian. Also, a number of my relatives ended up gifting me children’s books by Indian writers (or set in India), which was a good thing.


        • *sniff* I never came across the Zorro comics. Never!

          But Tintin, yes. I had a cousin in Delhi who had the entire Tintin collection. When we’d be passing through Delhi, my sister and I would spend hours reading all those comics. So yes, my knowledge of Tintin is pretty good (I have quite a few of the comics, too).

          Frankly, I prefer Asterix and Obelix to Tintin. There is something so absolutely unbeatably witty about them – the names, the stories, everything. I simply adore the Asterix/Obelix series. Have read and re-read them I don’t know how many times, and cannot get enough of them!


          • I prefer the Asterix and Obelix stories too. :) Not that I didn’t like Tintin, but the translators Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge did such a wonderful job with the former. I love the little historical allusions, and the sly hits against one culture or the other.

            I grew up on these and Enid Blyton and stuff like that too, but I also had Amar Chitra Katha (hundreds of them), and indigenous stories, so that was okay.

            Do any of you remember reading folk tales from Russia when you were kids? I grew up with a lot of (translated) stories from Russia. So Baba Yaga, Princess Vasilisa and Ivan Tsarevitch were as familiar to me as our fables.


            • Same here re: Asterix and Obelix – though I like Tintin a lot too, the Gauls were my special favourites! I adored the pirates, and all the villagers, and the poor Romans who had to deal with them. Incidentally, these days I’m re-reading Steven Saylor’s A Murder on the Appian Way, part of his Roma Sub Rosa detective novels. When I first read the stories, I remembered thinking, “My goodness! I know this – and this – and this – all because I came across it in the Asterix comics.” :-)

              Oh, yes. I remember the Russian folktales very well. There used to be lots of them around because we were such good friends with the USSR. My favourites were these books called Northern Lights and Ukrainian Folk Tales. Oddly enough, I don’t remember having coming across Baba Yaga, though she seems to have been my husband’s favourite fictional character from his childhood! :-D


              • I love asterix and obelisk. The humour in there is absolutely fantastic. My favourite one being when they were in Britain, and stopped everything, even a battle, at 4pm to have hot water (since tea wasn’t introduced there yet) LOL! Love it.


                • I’m sitting and having a mug of tea right now, so I can sympathise with Mykingdomforanos (what a delightful name!!) and his countrymen. Do you remember, there’s this scene where the women are going around pouring out the hot water for the men, and one of them asks for “a spot of milk with that” :-D

                  I also like Dubbleosix’s name – so brilliat for a Gaul/spy/failed druid (failed his druidical exams six times, too!)


              • But I read a lot of Indian literature as well. :)
                As children the usual Chandamama, amarchitra katha in addition to several panchtantra short stories, and when in high school/college I read a lot of Munshi Premchand, sarat chandra etc. But it stopped once I was out of collge, which was a century ago. :-)


  6. Haven’t seen this one Madhu, but I’m ready to gush-gush with you on The Artist!!! What a lovely, lovely film!!! And ohhh Du Jardin was sparkling and charming!!!


  7. Another to-do list. Am dying to go and get watch a good Oscar film, I saw Hugo, and didn’t think it was anything much apart from the 3D (which was brilliant)…
    And watched Woman in Black, which was crap, even ghost storied should have some logic!!!


    • I’m not much of a fan of ghost stories (I scare easily), so I gave The Woman in Black a miss. Just as well, from what you say, because for me logic – no matter if the story is supposed to be fantasy/sci fi/whatever – is an important part. I don’t like to be left with a bunch of ‘hows and whys’ at the end of the story.


  8. Oh, and some trivia about the 1920 movie – Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford first read the story (a serialised five-part story called The Curse of Capristano) and picked it to be the debut venture of their new studio – United Artists.


    • I didn’t know this was the debut film of United Artists, though they do acknowledge that it’s based on The Curse of Capistrano.

      Thank you for that bit of trivia, Anu!


  9. Continuing the Asterix-Obelix thread here:

    @Pacifist – you remind me of one of my most favourite Asterix stories. :) And yes, like you, I read Indian literature was high on my reading radar as well. (And like you, I left college in the dark ages – longer back than I care to remember. Ugh. I feel old!)

    I do think there were more translations of Indian literature when we were kids; because, when my older son was a wee toddler, I went around looking for the books of my childhood and couldn’t seem to find any. By that time, I think our literature had been wiped out – at least, the translations of my childhood weren’t as easily available.

    Any of you find that to be the case?

    @ Madhu – I’m glad Tarun remembers Baba Yaga. She lived in a little hut that had chicken feet – so it never stayed in one place. Thanks to old kampudevam, I found a Baba Yaga story :)



    • Amar Chitra Katha is still going strong, thank heavens. And, while there are translations around, I think what has changed (for the better) since we were children is the fact that there are more Indian writers writing for children than there were back then. And there are some well-written books (my sister has a few of them) that are non-fiction (for instance, on history) specifically for children. She was showing me one on Parsi culture, and another on Humayun’s Tomb, both of which were excellent – geared towards children, but not talking down to them.

      The translations, by the way, are there aplenty. I go to a bookstore just about every weekend, and there’s always enough Premchand (though I would much rather read him in Hindi, like I used to back in school), Sarat Chandra, etc.


    • @Anu: Tarun has been telling me about Baba Yaga ever since we got married. I never knew about the chicken feet, but he certainly told me about the tent that wouldn’t stay in one place!

      Thank you for the link – I need to leave home now, but will read it later today. :-)


    • Thank you, Samir! Do please watch The Artist – at least that’s easy to get hold of. So are the two Zorro films, though – and the 1940 one is especially good swashbuckling fun.


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