Cool Things: The Mark of Zorro

Okay, that is not actually the plot of The Mark of Zorro but from the moment they meet each other on screen you know it’s what must happen. The razor sharp intensity of Basil Rathbone as Captain Esteban and Tyrone Power as the verbose, lacksidasical Don Diego Vega could not be more at odds with one another. We see the steel under Diego’s façade  for a moment during their first meeting but the shrewd don is quick to hide his dislike for Esteban and his partner in crime, the Alcalde, or governor, Luis Quintero. Instead of public displays against the powers that be, Diego adopts the persona of El Zorro, or The Fox, and becomes one of the first superheroes to grace the silver screen.

While not equipped with superpowers in the traditional sense, or even the advantages of masked geniuses like Batman, Zorro quickly strikes fear into the heart of the corrupt officials of California and, in doing so, rode into the minds of the American people. Zorro is charming, skilled and mysterious and, while things look bleak for a time, he never looses.

You may have noticed that this post begins with a spoiler. But, if you’re at all familiar with swashbuckling films or you’re paying any attention at all to the incredible tension between these two characters you’ll quickly realize that the battle between Power’s Zorro and Rathbone’s Esteban is more than a plot point. It’s an inevitable law of nature. The two must clash, and it will be a battle for the ages.

In fact, more than anything else, it’s the power of these two actors that makes the movie something more than basic swashbuckling fare. Power depicts Zorro with such panache, such flair, such incredible ease of attitude and motion that you can’t help but believe this dashing rogue is really the most shrewd plotter and deadly swordsman in all of California. Rathbone’s signature glare, supreme self-confidence and air of constant readiness is a brilliant contrast. It feels almost as if the two start their duel from their first meeting, only escalating to actual steel when verbal barbs and crafty schemes fail to get them what they want.

Oh, there are other brilliant moments in the movie. At any moment with Zorro or Esteban on the screen, they dominate it. When they share a scene we cannot tell where to look. There literally isn’t room for both of them there, and sooner or later one of them will have to go. For a study in well crafted rivalry there really is no film better than this one (although there might be some just as  good.)

The greatest tribute to any black and white film is to say it’s still worth watching today. For most swashbucklers, even some only a decade or two old, this isn’t the case. The acting tends to be mediocre, the action dated.

It’s true that the sword battles in The Mark of Zorro could be shot better, with better cinematography or special effects. But in terms of actual sword work these two actors are peerless and they demonstrate their skill with little of the flare or embellishment you see in action movies today – there’s nothing here but pulse pounding action.

The acting, as you’ve hopefully already gathered, is incredible.

The plot is timeless. We’ve all heard this story a million times before, but we don’t care because it’s such a fundamental tale. Sure, it’s not the greatest script, but sometimes it doesn’t have to be.

The Mark of Zorro. Watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

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