Aug/Sep 1998 Film and Cinema

The Mask of Zorro

reviewed by Mark Leeper

Capsule: Perhaps the greatest of all
swashbuckling heroes is back on the screen. The
new story offers us not one but two different
Zorros played by Anthony Hopkins and Antonio
Banderas as the mask and cape are passed to a new
generation. The Mask of Zorro may not all make
sense, but it is great to have a big, brash
historical adventure back on the wide screen.
Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4).
Spoiler Warning: Comments about plot follow the
main review. They could be spoilers.


I think I qualify as a Zorro fan. When I finally finished the serial Son of Zorro last month I had seen every live-action Zorro film or serial ever released in the English language. And I am one-up on even some of the most confirmed Zorro fans, having found and read The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley years ago. [It was nearly impossible to find until its paperback reprint this year as The Mark of Zorro.] The legend of El Zorro, the Fox, began when Johnston McCulley's story was serialized in five parts starting August 9, 1919, in All-Story Weekly. In the story the character of Zorro, dashing outlaw on the side of good hiding behind the guise of the effete fop, was almost a direct steal from the Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel, created in 1904. The following year the story was made into the film The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. The 1920 film was very faithful to the novel, but it revealed much sooner who was behind the mask so it would better show off Fairbanks's talents. Through the years Zorro has graced several English-language films, serials, and a TV series. Zorro was the original "Caped Crusader" of American pop culture and undoubtedly was part of the inspiration for Batman. As popular as he is in America, he is even more popular abroad and has been portrayed in an astounding number of Italian, French, Spanish, and Mexican films. The most recent film version was the 1980 ZORRO, The Gay Blade, a strained comedy starring George Hamilton. Now Tristar Pictures has brought back Zorro in a (mostly) serious film adventure.

The film The Mask of Zorro might more aptly be called The Return of Zorro. Departing from the canon of the earlier stories Diego de la Vega (also known as Zorro and played here by Anthony Hopkins) is captured by an arch-enemy Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), the Spanish Governor. In the process Esperanza, Diego's wife whom both men loved, is killed. Rafael takes Diego's daughter Elena, adopting her as his own, and returning to Spain. Twenty years later the real story begins with Rafael returning to California where Diego is still imprisoned. Diego escapes and runs into Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), a young man that Diego had known before his imprisonment. Murrieta has turned into a somewhat incompetent bandit with a vendetta against Captain Harrison Love (Matthew Letscher) who happens to be an ally of Montero. Diego decides not just to befriend this enemy of his enemy, he decides to make the young man into a new Zorro. Completing the set of principles is Elena (Catherine Zeta Jones), a grown woman and returned from Spain to be with Montero, whom she believes to be her father.

The script for The Mask of Zorro was written by Terry Rossio, Ted Elliott, and John Eskow, who seem most familiar with the Disney version of Zorro. At least, when they need to coin new names, they use Garcia and Bernardo, taken from the Disney version. The score by James Horner makes heavy use of crisp flamenco rhythms. But Horner had his work cut out for him to try to match the great Alfred Newman score of the 1940 film The Mark of Zorro.

Anthony Hopkins proves once again how versatile an actor he is as Diego de la Vega. He does a decent job playing a dashing swordsman considerably his junior. It is obvious that he has a double for some of the most vigorous scenes, but he is apparently doing much of his own swordplay. Antonio Banderas is to the best of my knowledge the first Hispanic to play El Zorro on the American screen. The character Zorro has always been played with some wit, though a little less might have been more. Catherine Zeta Jones's Elena has more than sufficient fire for the role. Perhaps the best scene in the film is a quiet conversation between her and Hopkins. The film was directed by Martin Campbell, best known for directing Goldeneye.

Perhaps not everything works, as I relate in the spoiler section to follow. But as a Zorro fan I just know that had they called me in as a consultant I could have fine-tuned this film to perfection. There was a lot that bothered me, but I still hope it makes a mint and we get some more. After all, you just can't have too many Zorro films, can you? I rate The Mask of Zorro a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler...

Some random comments:

There is one very big hole in the plot. Rafael Montero intends to buy California from Santa Ana in the name of the Spanish government, but actually for himself. I strongly doubt that Santa Ana would sell in the first place even to the Spanish. The US-Mexican War, 1846-8, was fought to force Santa Ana to sell Texas and other territories to the United States. Santa Ana did not want to sell off his country. But if Santa Ana agreed to sell California to Spain, then what? When he discovered the Spanish government knew nothing about the transaction he would declare the sale null and void. He would field an army (probably with Don Rafael's own gold) and retake California. If Don Rafael had had the strength to defend California he would not have needed the gold in the first place. If he did not have the strength the fact that had given Santa Ana some gold and lied about whom he represented would have amounted to no more than a political contribution.

The climactic explosion would have killed all the laborers, at least the way the sequence is edited. In most films that would be a problem. Here I will consider it a nod to the impossible escapes in the Zorro serials. Another problem with the plot is that at the end of the film a lot of people know that there is sufficient gold in California to make mining highly profitable. California would have had a very different history if that information were public so early.

But not all my comments will be negative. Usually the scripting of this sort of film is straightforward and not very subtle. I would like to point out what I found a clever piece of plotting. It was going to come down to one man's word against another who Elena's father was. A lessor script might have left it strictly an emotional decision. The double coincidence that Diego is here with such a hatred for her father and that Elena so resembles Esperanza is just too much coincidence. She might not know who her father is, but logically Esperanza has to be her mother.

The ending of the McCulley's Zorro was never quite satisfying. He was to become a wealthy landowner and "raise fat children." There is something satisfying in having Zorro not go gently into that good night.


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