Saturday, July 02, 2022

A Sword and a Smile: Zorro

Zorro! The name evokes a bold image, doesn’t it? The swirl of a black cape, the slash of a sword. A jaunty mask concealing a hero’s identity, but not his glee at besting another adversary. Zorro doesn’t just defend the downtrodden from their cruel oppressors because it’s right, he champions them because he enjoys it. 

He’s a bit of a puzzle, that Zorro. He’s actually a wealthy Spanish aristocrat, Diego de la Vega, who probably has enough money that he could pay to make life carefree for everyone around him. Instead, he dons a disguise, rides a mighty black horse around his neighborhood and carves Zs at the scenes of his triumphs. Why? Because it’s more exciting to do that than to simply buy peace, I suppose. 

When I was a kid, I thought Zorro was a legend, much like Robin Hood. Based on some kind of historical character, maybe. A folk hero raised to the kind of iconic status that earns you movies and books based on your life. But the truth is, he’s an entirely fictional character, made up by an Illinois native writing for pulp magazines in New York City not quite a hundred years ago. 

Johnston McCulley wrote the first Zorro story, The Curse of Capistrano, as a serial adventure that got published in 1919. Zorro was obviously an amalgamation of Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel that McCulley plopped down in old Spanish-controlled California. He had a charm and flair all his own, and readers responded enthusiastically. A year later, Douglas Fairbanks donned mask and sword belt for the first Zorro movie, The Mark of Zorro. Nearly a dozen more Hollywood Zorro films have followed over the years, not to mention TV shows and foreign films, plus countless books, several written by McCulley. Both Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox are said to be planning new Zorro movies. Last year, Benedict Cumberbatch even donned that famous black ensemble for a short New York Times Magazine film with Reese Witherspoon. This year, a Zorro musical is slated for Broadway. 

What is it about this rich guy who pretends to be a milksoppy fop and engages in clandestine daredevilry that captures our imaginations? Why did I, as a girl, pore over a storybook retelling of Zorro’s story that featured Disney’s version, Guy Williams? Why did I, as a college student, decorate my dorm room walls all four years with a poster for the Antonio Banderas retelling, The Mask of Zorro? Why do I now, as a thirty-something wife and mom, revel in listening to the Val Kilmer audio adaptation of the original story? 

Is it the vicarious thrill I get from Zorro’s swashbuckling adventures? The joy I take in seeing wrongs righted, mean people punished, innocent suffering avenged? The tingle of being in on the secret of Zorro’s identity while his enemies are fooled so utterly by his simple black mask? For me, it’s all of those things. I’d like to imagine that, were I wealthy, accomplished at swordplay, and set down in a world of stark and brutal injustices, I would behave exactly as Diego de la Vega does. I would disguise myself and set about fixing all the world’s problems with my sword and my smile. 

And maybe that’s the key to the question of Zorro’s enduring popularity: that smile. There are other swashbuckling heroes with dazzling swordfighting skills. Think of the Dread Pirate Roberts! Inigo Montoya! Captain Jack Sparrow! Will Turner! D’Artagnan! Athos! Porthos! Aramis! All a joy to watch wield a blade. And all of them get rather serious about what they’re fighting for. But Zorro— he laughs, he quips, he delights in his escapades. Oh he can be serious when the need arises. One does not laugh about suffering or injustice. But Zorro gets a jolt of happiness from his mission to save the hopeless, and I think that happiness passes on to us, the audience. 

I don’t know if you prefer your Zorro silent, ala Douglas Fairbanks; suave, ala Tyrone Power; or smoldering ala Antonio Banderas. I don’t know if you prefer a more arcane flavor, like Duncan Regehr or Frank Langella or Alain Delon. I don’t know if you’ve never watched or read anything concerning Zorro before in your life. But I am quite sure that, whenever you do encounter Zorro, be it for the first or the five hundredth time, both you and he will be smiling before long.

(This post originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Femnista magazine.)


  1. I enjoyed this! The Tyrone Power MARK OF ZORRO is one of my all-time favorite films. Recently I saw a relatively little-known unofficial spin on the story, THE BANDIT QUEEN (1950), with Barbara Britton as "Zara." It's relatively low budget but quite fun, like the others you mentioned.

    Fun trivia: When my mom was young her family had a weekend cabin in Twin Peaks, CA, near Johnston McCulley's home. You can see a photo of part of his cabin in this article:

    Best wishes,

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed this, Laura :-) Tyrone Power really just dazzles as Zorro, doesn't he? I haven't seen Bandit Queen, but I've seen the 1970s remake that has Frank Langella take Power's place and then recreates the whole movie, basically beat for beat. It's kind of wacky, but also kind of cool.

      Thanks to the link to the stuff about the McCulley museum! That is so awesome! How cool that your mom got to spend time near his cabin as a kid :-)

  2. I think you got it exactly right, Rachel. Zorro is a different kind of hero, because of his debonair attitude and smiling ways.

  3. I read a Disney storybook of Zorro too! It was part of a larger anthology. I've never seen the Disney film, but I remember being so intrigued by and interested in the story.

    Have you ever seen the Dreamworks animated movie Puss in Boots? Antonio Banderas voices the main character and there's one or two Zorro references in the film.

    1. Eva, awwww, how awesome! Check your Disney+ for The Sign of Zorro -- it's available here in the US, anyway. It's the first few eps of the classic Disney show cobbled together into a feature-length film, and it's excellent fun.

      I still haven't seen Puss in Boots, but I will sometime cuz yeah, I am an Antonio Banderas fan :-D

  4. I grew up watching the Disney Channel series, and then fell in love with the older movies... and then fell in love with The Mask of Zorro. It took me a long time to get around to reading the original novel, but it's pretty dang adorable!

    1. Charity, I also first saw select eps of the Disney series, then Mask of Zorro, then Mark of Zorro, and then finally got around to reading the original! It is such a delightful swashbuckler :-D I enjoyed the first sequel too, but haven't managed to read the rest of the series yet.


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