My first introduction to the character Zorro was in an old serial they showed on television in the early 1950s when I just a kid, to wit, Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939). It was directed toward a juvenile audience, and so it might seem inappropriate to take it seriously enough to criticize it, but having watched it again recently, I just have to make one observation. Zorro rides a white horse, the only white horse apparently in the entire area. And so, I found myself wondering where he stabled it. You can almost hear people saying to themselves, “Gee, Don Diego and Zorro are the only two people that have a white horse.” Actually, Diego never rides the white horse, riding a black one instead. But when something comes up needing Zorro’s attention, Diego rides out to the hills where his white horse is standing there by himself, saddled and ready. Needless to say, you can’t treat a horse that way. That aside, it occurred to me that it would have made more sense if Diego rode the white horse, since it would go with his pretense of being a fop, while riding a black horse when he donned his Zorro rig. Clearly, this juvenile serial wanted Zorro to have the pizzazz that goes with riding a white horse, instead of doing it the way I suggest, which might appeal to a more mature audience.
But I was just a kid when I first watched it, and so the white horse for Zorro was probably just what I wanted. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the parts where Zorro was all decked out in his black outfit, complete with cape, sword, pistols, and whip. The television station followed up by presenting an earlier serial, Zorro Rides Again (1937), and though I didn’t care for his mask, I still paid more attention to the parts where he was in costume and not so much to the parts where he was in ordinary dress pretending to be weak and lazy. And I was thrilled when Disney studios produced a television series entitled simply Zorro (1957-1959). As before, it was the parts where I got to see Zorro gallivanting about that I was interested in, not so much the parts where he was Don Diego de la Vega.
Whether I preferred the parts where Zorro is doing stuff was because I was a child, or it was because these two serials and the television series were juvenile in nature, I cannot say. But it was quite a surprise for me when, as a college student, I saw The Mark of Zorro (1940) for the first time. Of course, it had the star quality of such actors as Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone, as well as the production values of a major studio, all of which were bound to make it much better than what I had seen previously. But what really struck me was the fact that the parts of the movie featuring Zorro constituted a relatively small amount of screen time, which was greatly exceeded by the amount of time devoted to Don Diego. The emphasis on Don Diego in this movie even went so far as to have him fight the climactic duel as Diego and not as Zorro. In this, the movie followed the 1920 version with Douglas Fairbanks. But most movies do not do this, choosing instead to have the climactic duel fought by Zorro. For example, the 1974 made-for-television version starring Frank Langella has the actor in full Zorro regalia in the final showdown.
The amount of screen time given to Zorro versus Diego determines the kind of movie it is. A costumed character is exciting to watch, but he is all action and external appearance. He must be in constant motion, running, riding, fighting, and so forth. If he stands still for too long, he begins to look silly, especially if he is wearing a cape. In fact, one of the ways the television show Batman (1966-1968) would amuse us was by having Batman and Robin doing just that, standing around and talking in their costumes. On the other hand, it is with his secret identity, Diego in the case of Zorro movies, that we get to know the man, to learn what he thinks and feels. Moreover, we get to watch him acting a part in order to keep people from suspecting that he is the one who wears the mask. In this case, the part is that of a fop. It is a pretense also used in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), starring Leslie Howard as the title character and as Sir Percy Blakeney, but Howard’s performance in that role was over the top and irritating. Diego’s foppery as performed by Tyrone Power, on the other hand, is so good that we find ourselves impatiently waiting for the Zorro scenes to end so that we can have more Diego.
The Mark of Zorro, then, is the only serious Zorro movie intended for an adult audience. Of course, Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981) is intended for an adult audience too, but it is a parody. Other than that, it is standard for Zorro movies to appeal to juveniles. However, The Mask of Zorro (1998), takes this to the next level. Not only is it intended for children, it has children playing major roles in the movie as well. This is in keeping with the unfortunate trend, beginning in the 1980s, of thrusting children into movies that would once of have been made with adults only.