Movies I Need To See Before I Die: Douglas Fairbanks in THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920)


(This is a column where I review movies that I have never seen, but SHOULD have.  Being a film Geek, I have seen a ton of films.  But life is also very short, and for one reason or another, there are quite a few flicks that I have never got to.  Sure, it probably doesn’t matter if I ever see a movie like PARENTAL GUIDANCE, but a movie like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA…. well, I should have seen that already.  I’m a film geek for God’s sake!  I have now decided that I should get on that before I get too old.  I have compiled a list of films that I WANT or NEED to watch, and am going to start watching them when I have spare time.  So I will randomly be posting reviews of movies that I have always wanted or needed to see.  Enjoy!)

Douglas Fairbanks was a pretty big deal back in the silent era.  If there was a swashbuckling tale to be told, you better believe that his production company got his hands on that property, whether it be THE THREE MUSKETEERS, ROBIN HOOD, or in this case, ZORRO!  I have only seen one other Fairbanks film and that was THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924), and I loved it!  I was looking forward to his take on Zorro, since I am a fan of that legendary character.  I haven’t seen the Tyrone Power version, but I really liked the Antonio Banderas ones.  Yes, even the second one….. back off!

If you’ve seen any of the others Zorro incarnations, then you pretty much know how the story is going to go in this one too.  In old Spanish California, the Governor is oppressing its citizens.  So a masked hero calling himself Zorro presents himself to fight off the oppressors.  Fairbanks plays Don Diego, a rich resident who pretends to be a lazy incompetent ass.  But in reality, he IS the masked hero.  Diego’s father wants him to marry a local girl whose family is in trouble, but he doesn’t want anyone to marry him because of money.  But when he meets her, he falls for her.  But he only romances her as Zorro, and she ends up falling for the masked bandit, not Diego.  Meanwhile, Captain Ramon is doing everything in his power to find and kill Zorro.

You know, I find it fascinating that THIS is how movies used to be made.  Not with words, just purely visual.  Actors had to rely solely on their body language to tell the story.  And the director had to find a way to make everything visually engaging to look at.  In the case of THE MARK OF ZORRO, I would say mission accomplished!  This is one entertaining adventure!

The movie starts off effectively by building up the Zorro legend by having people talking about him, and seeing a bad guy who bears the marking of the infamous “z” on his face.  Then we meet the meek Diego.  His entrance was awesome, as the bad guys think it’s Zorro, only to realize it’s Diego when he lowers his umbrella.  That’s clever filmmaking.  Then we get a fun sword fight as Zorro clanks blades with the baddies in a saloon just moments later.  The movie has a real nice structure to it.  After the terrific intro, the story gets underway as Zorro woos the lovely Lolita with smooth poetry.  There’s usually a sword fight or chase every 15 minutes or so, and the finale, when Diego’s identity is revealed got my adrenaline pumping.  Awesome stuff!

Douglas Fairbanks is fantastic.  His stunt work is really impressive as he sword fights, climbs walls, and jumps across rooftops.  And since most of the stunts are done in long mastershots, I didn’t see any safety nets.  Wow!  But not only his he a great action star, he is also a wonderful actor.  His entire body language is entirely different when he plays Diego.  Almost like how Clark Kent is entirely different from Superman.  It’s that big of a transformation.  Zorro stands up straight and tall, while Diego is slouched over and moves slow.  Fairbanks is excellent throughout the picture.  There’s also great chemistry between him and Marguerite De La Motte as Lolita.  The first kiss they share gave me goosebumps.

The direction by Fred Niblo is really good.  It’s not hugely epic in scale, but there are some great set pieces sprinkled throughout.  It was also nice to find some bits of lighthearted humor too.  There is violence in the action, but it’s not that brutal.  I can’t remember if anyone dies in the movie….hmmmm….. I don’t think anyone did.  It’s a great film to watch with the whole family, especially if you’re trying to get your kids into silent films.  This would be a good one to start with.  It’s paced well and doesn’t really have any lulls, and that’s impressive especially since it’s nearly 2 hours.

This is an old-fashioned adventure, the only way Hollywood knew how to make them.  It’s exciting, thrilling, romantic, and thoroughly entertaining..  And it’s all anchored by a rousing performance from Douglas Fairbanks.  This is what going to the movies should be about:  Pure escapism!    ★★★½ (out of ★★★★)

– Not rated but contains lots of action, though none of it brutal or fatal.  The worst has Zorro putting a Z on a bad guy’s neck.  It could probably get away with a PG rating.

– Running time: 1hr 46min.

(THE MARK OF ZORRO is streaming on Netflix)

Categories: Austin Kennedy, Movies I Need To See Before I Die, Reviews

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