Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009

Zorro

Complete on DVD

By David Luhrssen
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Criminals mask themselves to hide their faces, but the idea of a masked hero has deeper resonance once you consider the implications. Emerging from the 1919 pulp fiction series by Johnston McCulley, Zorro (Spanish for fox) was Robin Hood without the benefit of a forest to hide in, concealing his campaign against oppression under a black cloak, gaucho hat and mask. He might not have been the first hero figure of his kind, but the galloping freedom fighter with the hidden identity inspired the Lone Ranger, Superman and Bat Man. The more plebian Lone Ranger was closer to Zorro in locale and mode of transport, the horse, but Batman’s affinity is more than skin deep as the privileged man who dons a mask and employs fantastic skills in largely nocturnal assaults on wrongdoers. If justice were the law of the land, there would be little impulse in fiction for masked avengers.

Zorro made his screen debut in 1920 with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as the swashbuckler and returned with Tyrone Power in The Mask of Zorro (1940). Starting in 1957, Walt Disney produced a long-running series around the adventures of the masked Spaniard. “Zorro: The First Complete Season” and “The Second Complete Season” are out now in elaborate DVD box sets.

As genial film historian Leonard Maltin mentions in his introduction, “Zorro” commanded an astonishing 40 percent of the viewing audience, a statistic virtually impossible to duplicate in the fragmented world of now. The tone of the series was light-hearted. Guy Williams starred as mild mannered Don Diego, the aristocrat’s son who transforms himself by night into Zorro. There were plenty of sword fights (and even a whip fight) and chases on horseback as Zorro, in alliance with liberal Roman Catholic clergy, protected the rights of Native Americans and taxpayers alike against a cruel, corrupt commandante.

Viewed from the post-civil rights era, one may pause to wonder about ethnic stereotyping. The Latinos of Disney’s “Zorro” included its share of boo-hiss villains and lazy screw-ups, but also its complement of the good and the brave. The problem may be that Guy Williams, although playing an early 19th century Spaniard, couldn’t help but seem like a mid-20th century American. Decades later, Zorro was finally retrieved for Spain by Antonio Banderas in the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro.

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