I picked up a couple DVDs of old silent movies this weekend, yielding me a total of five Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. films to get acquainted with. I started with The Mark of Zorro, the 1920 film in which Fairbanks established himself as Hollywood’s definitive action star. It was also the first Zorro movie ever made. Fairbanks picked out the obscure hero of a single pulp magazine story and turned him into an icon, to his own and the author’s great profit.
(Note to Hollywood: My books are still available. Better move now.)
Silent movies have to be taken on their own terms. Naturalism wasn’t what they were about. They were almost a form of interpretive dance, in which the actors used their faces, their eyes and their whole bodies to convey their “lines,” only sparsely supplemented by those black dialogue cards. The great D. W. Griffith did a lot of pioneering work using the camera to assist in his storytelling, but little of that kind of artistry is apparent in this film. Basically they set the camera in one spot and shot the scene in front of it.
Modern treatments of Zorro fall prey to Hollywood’s deep-seated need to be relevant and significant. Fairbanks had no such pretensions. He picked the vehicle because it offered lots of scope for the gymnastics at which he excelled, and that’s how he used it. There’s talk of “justice” and “oppression” (Zorro is described, among other things, as a defender of the “natives,” something I haven’t seen emphasized in the more recent adaptations, though I missed the second Banderas film), but that’s set dressing. It’s really a movie about a really agile guy running rings around the plodding villains, and laughing at them while he does it. It’s one notch of seriousness from being a full-fledged comedy.
And it’s a lot of fun, taken on its own terms. Continue reading The Mark of Zorro