Mark of Zorro, The (1920)

The Mark of Zorro (1920), directed by Fred Niblo.

The first Zorro in film, made immediately after the character first appeared on August 9, 1919 in the pages of All-Story Weekly:

Said to be a turning point in Douglas Fairbanks' career, a switch to costume action pictures for him, and a foundation work in action pictures themselves. The first product of United Artists.

In this telling Don Diego is not as foppish as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) but merely weak and enervated; low testosterone, to the frustration of the senorita he is supposed to woo.

Putting on the mask he is incredibly suave and athletic, with real leaps and swashbuckling that is still impressive.

In silent film actors have to communicate more with their posture and expressions. This can be vastly entertaining, as for 18-year-old Marguerite De La Motte's expressions in response to her suitors: rolling her eyes in exasperation at Don Diego, flashing them in anger at the insulting Captain Ramon, then melting with desire and love for Zorro.

The plot follows The Curse of Capistrano reasonably well. A running gag is that you shouldn't drunkenly boast about how you are going to smack Zorro around when you catch him; he always turns up to discuss the matter. I would have tightened those bits up.

I don't recall that the film mentions it, but that dusty little pueblo is Los Angeles, population 650 in 1820.

The 1920 film sets the scene "about a hundred years ago" and I watched it 100 years after it was made. Mind blown.

The film is in the public domain and is available online, as well as on DVDs of probably variable quality. My Netflix rental was from Image Entertainment, 1999. Quite a lot of print damage but certainly watchable for an antique film.

I don't know if the tinting was from the original or added later, or if the score was written for the original release or developed since then. It has that Wurlitzer theater organ sound so often used for silent film tracks. I find it irritating sometimes, but in this case it does try to match the action.