Monday, September 28, 2015

Buckle that swash, part I: He's crazy... like a fox!


The action-adventure genre soars into life, midwifed by a really cut man in a silly mask, jumping and climbing all over every last damned thing he surveys.

Directed by Fred Niblo
Written by Eugene Miller and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (based on "The Curse of Capistrano" by Johnston McCulley)
With Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (Don Diego Vega/Zorro), Margueritte De La Motte (Lolita Pulido), Tote Du Crow (Bernardo), Sydney De Grey (Don Alejandro Vega), Noah Beerey (Sgt. Pedro Gonzales), and Robert McKim (Capitan Juan Ramon)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Maybe it's hard to believe, but by December, 1920, the month The Mark of Zorro hit theaters, the tale of Johnston McCulley's iconic pulp vigilante had never unfolded anywhere but within the serial that gave him his debut, published in five installments over the late summer of 1919 in All-Story Weekly.  His legend was, at this moment, still unformed in our collective imagination; but very shortly, he'd be fixed in the pop cultural firmament forever.  In 1920, the outlaw Zorro would become the harbinger of American cinema's greatest and most long-lasting achievement: the action flick.

There had already been various pictures made, throughout the previous twenty years, that might well be called "action movies," notably The Great Train Robbery, all the way back in 1903.  I suppose Birth of a Nation (1915) must have had its elements of action spectacle, too, whether we want to think about them or not, and Cabiria (1914), Italian director Giovanni Pastrone's epic tale of the Second Punic War, is outright amazing, specifically for its action content.  But Zorro, if not the first, was amongst the first to fit the mold of what we moderns consider an action film.  Zorro indulges in complicated setpieces, in thrilling stuntwork, in a morally-untroubled conflict between good and evil, and, above all, in violence, rendered for the sake of fun.  For violence is, and always has been, very cool to watch.

Perhaps even more importantly, Zorro was the first to take advantage of the possibilities of an action movie star.  And this wasn't by accident: Zorro was designed, from the ground up, as a career-renovating vehicle, by and for Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.  It was Fairbanks who got the rights to McCulley's "Curse of Capistrano"; it was Fairbanks who funded the film; it was even Fairbanks who, albeit under a pseudonym and with help, adapted the screenplay.  He had heretofore been a popular comedic and romantic actor, but he sought something more than that—something that deployed his athleticism and charisma, and his love of fantastic adventure.  And, with Zorro, he created in himself Hollywood's first true action hero.  He was, in a surprising number of respects, the Tom Cruise of his day: he formed a marriage alliance with an equally powerful starlet; he was profoundly physical, preferring to do his own stunts, as much for his own edification as for the benefit of audiences; he began his own production company, which became a powerhouse in its time (in Fairbanks' case, this was none other than United Artists); and, of course, like Cruise, Fairbanks spent some years as a conventional actor before reinventing himself as the very face of spectacle.  But what made their connection first apparent to my eyes was that smile—no, no, let's not say smile.  It is a shit-eating grin, shared across the ages.  America's always loved a smug son of a bitch, and America loved Fairbanks so much they bought his Goddamned self-help book.  This is where the similarities largely end—for one thing, Cruise's preferred self-improvement program has not been quite so well-received.  For another, Cruise retreated to blockbusting actioners out of a sense of perceived necessity.  But, in 1920, Douglas Fairbanks created very nearly a whole new kind of cinema, because he felt like it, and he created it out of virtually nothing—certainly not out of any preexisting popular demand.  He created a place in the Hollywood machine where his own particular fire could burn bright—indeed, more brightly than anyone had yet dared dream.  With all due respect to Chaplin, Zorro made Fairbanks the first movie superstar.  But Fairbanks kept his end of the deal.  He made Zorro a myth that shall never die.

So, we find ourselves back in Old Mexico, in the first half of the 19th century.  The exact date is nebulous—in any event, it is during that tumultuous period after Independence, and before the war with the United States brought its northern reaches into our Republic.  Tyranny reigns over Alta California—but a man steps forward out of the darkness.  This is Zorro, the terror of Mexico's ruling class.  With his razor-sharp blade and expert hand, he carves the mark of his rebellion upon their very bodies.  If one man alone could bring down an army, surely it would be Zorro; but even heroes need help against the power of a state, and Zorro seeks allies from the caballeros of California to turn the tide—but he must remain always one step ahead of his country's oppressors, and thus hides his identity from even his closest intimates, for their protection and his own.

But before we see Zorro, we first meet a wan and callow "youth," one Diego Vega.  Freshly returned from a vacation in Spain, it seems his vacation never really ended.  He has whiled away the last few months, much to his wealthy father's chagrin.  It's time for his son to be married—and, if his father's very fondest wishes came true, to finally become some semblance of a man.  To this end, the elder Vega forces Diego upon Lolita Pulido, the daughter of a fellow caballero, whose family has been all but ruined by political repression—and whose suffering at the governor's hands is not over yet.  Diego, predictably, does not impress her in the slightest.  But his friend Zorro quickly wins her heart—and thereby gives himself a weakness, one the governor's ruthless henchman will not hesitate to exploit.  Will she survive long enough to know Zorro's secret?  Will Zorro live long enough to tell her?  And will Diego ever make his father proud?

If you're old enough to read, you should probably know the answers to these questions!

Long before Siegel and Shuster and Superman, Diego Vega was already Clark Kenting his way across Alta California.  One of the most interesting things about Zorro is the way Douglas Fairbanks cloaks himself, not in Zorro's mask and fake mustache, but in the irredeemable dorkface of his alter ego, Don Diego Vega.  At night, Zorro stalks the highways and towns looking for evil to fight in that trademarked Fairbanksian blend of action and comedy, the kind where it is 100% crystal clear that no actual harm will come to our beloved star or any character we like, and even everyone in the movie seems to know this except the bad guy.  Yet the hero is contrasted with Diego, who is partly just a cunning disguise for a man of action—but, more than that, a deliberate flesh-and-blood parody of the idle rich, apparently devised solely for Diego's personal benefit, since he's the only one who could possibly be laughing.  (Well, he, and perhaps his mute valet Bernardo.)  Seemingly, the milquetoast's sole passion in life is for unspeakably lame party tricks.  "Have you seen this one..?" he constantly asks, before doing something with his handkerchief so mind-bendingly unremarkable that it's a mark of the high class of his social circle that he isn't more often punched directly in the nose, either by the macho soldiers that hang out at his local bar, or, indeed, by his own father, whose disappointment in Diego is frankly sympathetic.

Incidentally, if Fairbanks is not the only man to ever live who actually looked better with one of those stupid pencil mustaches, then it's a distinction he shares solely with John Waters.

Fairbanks is truly fantastic as poor, muddled Diego, simultaneously charming us out here in audienceland with his character's abject lack of cool—for we know that he is Zorro and is therefore exceedingly cool—while offering, in his command over his face and body language, an unattractive, even repellant non-entity whose existence amounts to a scathing commentary upon any society that would dare to justify his gift of aristocratic privilege.  It probably wasn't missed in 1920 any more than it could be missed in 2015.  Zorro was a terribly popular picture in its day, and it began a cycle of oddly moralistic Fairbanks joints, at least two of which (this and Robin Hood) are very nearly calls to class warfare, while one of which (The Thief of Bagdad) appears to apologize for his previous films' radicalism.  It's kind of exciting to watch it play out in such an arch-conservative milieu (right at the height of the First Red Scare, no less), and to imagine Zorro's audience.  Surely, they were excited by the stunts, but somewhere in the back of their mind, they were processing the idea that this exotic fantasy land—then as now, a category that is largely coextensive with "any place that is not contemporary America"—was a reflection of their own First Gilded Age.  Well, the more things change, the more they stay fucking terrible; thus Zorro remains just as relevant today as it was in 1920, for quite against the will of the people, the elite nevertheless continue to breed.

But if Fairbanks' Diego is what makes Zorro interesting, it's Fairbanks' turn as the titular swashbuckling hero who makes it so much fun.  (Though when I say that Fairbanks was mighty cut in 1920, I'm naturally just guessing: audiences would have to wait a while to really see some skin.)  The swordfighting in Zorro is generally enjoyable throughout—and, happily, Zorro never skimps on its action quotient, though I reluctantly concede that a century of more-accomplished action sometimes makes Zorro's brand of swordplay seem even a touch sillier than it's already supposed to be.  Occasionally, however, the violence rises to the legitimately compelling: there is one truly superb shot, capturing one of silent cinema's single most wonderful images.  This is the bloody "Z" which Zorro has carved into the flesh of a foeman's very neck, one slice at a time throughout their extended duel—reflected, for his enemy's benefit, in the mirror of Zorro's upheld sabre.

Almost as delightful is the comedic contrast between Diego's gormless courtship of Lolita and Zorro's whirlwind romance of the same, given flourish by the kind of sweet poetic nothings that nobody's ever really said to another human being, though we suspect that Zorro actually means them.  Of course, it would be a genuine crime if we ignored the closing chase sequence, for it is the centerpiece of the film.  Zorro witnesses Fairbanks' invention of ancient parkour, outright willing it into being through his famed agility (and, admittedly, with the routine assistance of his director's clumsy-ass jump-cutting).

Oh, yes, Zorro is a relatively early silent picture.  That means there's going to be some crap in here that would never have flown even a few years later: some shots are framed in an outrageous, even ungodly manner, notably one that all but decapitates our leads, while in their moment of absolute triumph.  The editing, as noted, is primitive, sometimes jarring (this, of course, could be somewhat due to the condition of the print, rather than filmmaking negligence).   But there is vast room for improvement in nearly all of its basic components, from the blocking of the actors to the horrifyingly static camera to the set design.  Zorro comes off as frankly cheap, in comparison to Fairbanks' later films.  But in its defense, it was cheap in comparison to Fairbanks' later films.  Nevertheless, Zorro remains one of the consummate showman's best exhibitions.  It's not his very best, certainly (it's not even his second best).  But good gracious, is it ever better than his baffling attempt at Robin Hood.  As a virgin effort for both Fairbanks and director Fred Niblo, it's not just very good, but surprisingly very good.  It probably didn't even need to be, to be successful (again, see Robin Hood); yet it competes, at least, for the title of Fairbanks' single best-paced action film.  (Of course, we'll see this isn't a terribly high bar.)

In the end, it is a deeply satisfying film, too.  It even goes so far as to redeem Diego's stupid human tricks after all—and when it does, Mark of Zorro becomes just about the sweetest thing a Zorro movie could be.  Add in the undeniable impact this first true swashbuckler has had on the action genre, and you have yourself a little bit of a genuine classic on your hands.

Score:  7/10


  1. Hey man. October's coming... You know what that means.

    I've been thinking long and hard about the three slashers I'll be dropping in your lap. Just like last year I'm choosing two good, one bad-good, but I tried to make sure you got a spate with some traditional Final Girls, because that was sorely lacking last year. I'm excited for Halloween! Thanks for playing!

    The House on Sorority Row (1983): One of my all time favorites. I even love the cheesy band that plays at the party.
    Terror Train (1980): An underserved Jamie Lee Curtis venture that deserves more attention.
    Killer Party (1986): Pure 80's fluff. Messy and entrancing.

    1. Hey, that's a good slate. Terror Train's kind of a blast.

      I was thinking about what to give you in return yesterday, in fact. (And this time I checked on their availability!)

      The good:
      It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955): very possibly Ray Harryhausen's best special effects picture, plus proto-feminism.
      The bad:
      The Giant Claw (1957): the infamous low-budget SF film about the bird as big as a battleship. Actually, the first forty-five minutes is kind of fantastic, then it sails into some uncharted conceptual waters that were honestly best left that way.
      The ugly:
      The Brain From Planet Arous (1958): treat this one tenderly! It's one of my favorites. I offer it to you, as a gift. It's the one where John Agar is taken over by an alien brain with galactic domination on his mind... that is, until he meets Sally. (Gross.) It's also the one where a brain puppet is suspended on wires. It's the most ridiculous kind of 1950s fun, a B-movie for the ages.

      Happy Halloween!