We all know who Zorro is, along with his secret identity, Don Diego Vega, his character having been featured in movies going back to the days of silent films. And so it comes as a surprise when we find out that he was not specifically mentioned in the title of the serialized novel in which he was introduced in 1919, that title being The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley. Another surprise that comes from reading this novel is the depiction of Diego’s native servant Bernardo, who is said to be deaf and dumb. And if you think that expression is politically incorrect, the portrayal of Bernardo is vastly more so, because Bernardo is dumb in both senses of the word. His value to Diego is such that we wonder why he didn’t just get a dog:
“Bernardo, you are a gem,” Don Diego said: “You cannot speak or hear, cannot write or read, and have not sense enough to make your wants known by the sign language. You are the one man in the world to whom I can speak without having my ears talked off in reply. You do not ‘Ha!’ me at every turn.”
Bernardo bobbed his head as if he understood. He always bobbed his head in that fashion when Don Diego’s lips ceased to move.
While visiting his father, Diego has Bernardo sleep on the floor just outside the door of his bedroom.
The first movie version of this story wisely changed the title to The Mark of Zorro (1920). The mark in question refers to the scar that Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks) sometimes leaves on the face of an enemy. As in the serialized novel, the movie begins with Zorro already in existence, and we see a man with a “Z” permanently etched as a scar on his face. Later on in the movie, he carves a “Z” on the neck of Captain Ramón during a sword fight, and in a subsequent fight at the end, carves a “Z” on his forehead. The first fight occurs because Ramón was sexually assaulting Lolita, with whom Zorro is in love.
We are used to seeing more consumption of tobacco in old movies than in modern ones, but I admit to being taken aback by its presentation in this movie. It is one thing to see Don Diego taking a pinch of snuff as part of his routine of being a fop, along with his listlessly performing magic tricks and saying he is fatigued, but it is quite another thing to see Zorro himself smoking a cigarette. But there he is, wearing cape and mask, taking a big drags on his cigarette, while confronting enemies, smiling broadly as he exhales large plumes of smoke.
The above-mentioned expressions of fatigue, by the way, are an essential attribute of Don Diego, beginning with the novel, where he proposes to Lolita and then says he finds the whole business fatiguing. Speaking of Lolita, I have to wonder what her marriage with Diego will be like, considering that he thinks Bernardo is an ideal companion.
It’s hard to know what to say about silent films. It’s almost as if they have to be rated against one another rather than compared to other movies in general. As for this one, it is a bit corny. When Sergeant Gonzales (Noah Berry) enters what appears to be a saloon, he is rude and offensive to a degree that is preposterous. However, the movie does have its moments. In any event, it made a major improvement on the character of Bernardo. In the movie, he only lacks the capacity for speech, and he is intelligent enough to help Diego conceal the fact that he is Zorro.
There is one more difference deserving special attention. In The Curse of Capistrano, the climactic duel is between Captain Ramón and Zorro, whereas in The Mark of Zorro, the duel is fought between Ramón and Diego. More about that later.
My 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). As serials go, this is one of the better ones, though I suppose that is not saying much. Set in 1810, Juarez has led a successful revolution in Mexico, which is quite an accomplishment, since he was born in 1806. Anyway, the United States of Mexico needs gold from the mines, but a mysterious figure, Don del Oro, controls the Yaquis who work the mines, and who is one of the corrupt counselors who want to keep the gold themselves, but…. Oh, it’s all too confusing to go on with the plot. There is no Bernardo character, by the way.
It was made with a juvenile audience in mind, 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 a brief comment. Zorro (Reed Hadley) 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. Nor does he keep it in his stable. 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 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, though it now strikes me that this panoply would be rather cumbersome.
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 the Walt Disney Studios produced a television series entitled simply Zorro (1957-1959). As before, it was the parts where I got to see Zorro (Guy Williams) gallivanting about that I was interested in, not so much the parts where he was Don Diego de la Vega. Bernardo reappears, playing the role of a man who cannot speak and only pretends to be deaf.
Whether I preferred the parts where Zorro was 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 Diego in this movie even went so far as to have him fight the climactic duel as Diego and not as Zorro, as in the 1920 version. Most movies do not do this, choosing instead to have any climactic sword fight fought by Zorro in his outfit, just as in the novel. Notably, in the 1974 made-for-television production starring Frank Langella, the movie is basically a remake of the version with Tyrone Power, even using the same music. The major difference between the two, aside from the inferior quality of the 1974 version, is the way the story was altered just enough to allow Langella to be 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, and fighting. 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. 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.
There is no Bernardo in the 1940 remake of The Mark of Zorro, although there is a gesture in his direction. When the movie starts, Diego is enjoying himself as a military man in Spain, where his only problem is having his love life interrupted by the need to fight duels with men that are trying to prove themselves with a sword. He gets called home by his father, who Diego believes is still the alcalde of a town in California. Before he finds out otherwise, everyone recoils in fear of him when he says his father is the alcalde, including a coachman who says nothing when Diego speaks to him. Angry, Diego threatens to cut out his tongue if he doesn’t answer him, but he is told that his father already had that done when the man spoke out against the taxes at a meeting, after which the coachman makes unintelligible sounds with his mouth. At the time, I thought he would be the Bernardo of this movie, but we never see him again.
Perhaps the reason for this also has to do with the maturity of the intended audience. The function that Bernardo serves in The Curse of Capistrano is that of allowing Diego to reveal his thoughts. He has someone to talk to who isn’t able to say anything in reply, which Diego would have found irritating, because he doesn’t care for what most of us would call a conversation. He prefers to be the only one to do the talking. I suppose we’ve all had the misfortune of knowing someone like that. In any event, this allows us to know what Diego is thinking. Of course, McCulley could have told us what Diego was thinking, but that is an inferior solution. It is better if we learn what someone is thinking by seeing or hearing what we would if we were in the room: observing his body language and facial expressions; listening to his dialogue with others. In the case of the novel, it is not so much a dialogue that Diego has with Bernardo, but a monologue in the presence of a dimwit. But in any event, a mature audience will have no trouble understanding what Diego is up to without someone like Bernardo for him to talk to, and he is certainly not missed in this 1940 remake.
In addition to allowing Diego to reveal his thoughts, Bernardo also seems to exist to provide for some silly humor. We no longer laugh at people that are mentally impaired, but I suspect that a hundred years ago, those that read The Curse of Capistrano thought Bernardo was funny. In the 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro, Diego uses a fake mustache as part of his Zorro disguise. At one point in the movie, he puts the mustache on Bernardo while he is sleeping. And his character in the Disney production of Zorro was just the sort that would amuse children. Therefore, such a character is not really suited for a movie intended for a mature audience. Hence his absence in the 1940 remake.
The 1940 remake of The Mark of Zorro, then, is the only serious Zorro movie intended for an adult audience, and it is the best Zorro movie of them all. Of course, Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981) is intended for an adult audience too, but it is a parody. With that qualification, however, I would rate it as the second best Zorro movie ever made. A Bernardo character belongs there, of course, though under the name “Paco.” Early in the movie, while Diego (George Hamilton) is sword fighting with a woman’s cuckolded husband and his five brothers, Paco hand-signals what is in a letter that just arrived ordering Diego to return to California.
Other than that, it is standard for Zorro movies to appeal to juveniles. The Mask of Zorro (1998), however, takes this to the next level. Not only is it intended for children, it has children playing 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.