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1920 marked a major turning point in the career of movie matinee idol Douglas Fairbanks. Not only did he tie the matrimony knot with Mary Pickford, the most popular actress in silent film, he also embarked on a new screen career. In the aftermath of World War I, audiences had grown bored with the cheerful, boy-meets-girl romantic comedies that had made Fairbanks a popular leading man so he decided to try a different tactic. A short story by Johnston McCulley, "The Curse of Capistrano," had appeared in the pulp magazine, All-Story Weekly, and was brought to his attention. Accounts vary as to who actually encouraged Fairbanks to take a chance on a period costume adventure but whether it was his brother Robert, his wife Mary, or an agent named Ruth Allen, the outcome was the same: Fairbanks simply capitalized on his physical agility and devil-may-care attitude to play the lead in The Mark of Zorro (1920) and, in the process, became the prototype for a new kind of hero - the swashbuckling adventurer.
The Mark of Zorro is set in California in the early nineteenth century and the story opens as Don Diego Vega (Fairbanks) returns from Spain to find his family being menaced by a corrupt governor and his henchmen. While Don Diego appears on the surface to be an effete dilettante, his behavior is really an elaborate ruse. In reality, he is Zorro, a master swordsman who has dedicated his life to fighting evil tyrants. Dressed in a purple cloak and black mask, Zorro torments his enemies further by carving a "Z" on the bodies of his adversaries while laughing in their faces.
While modestly budgeted in comparison to later swashbucklers, The Mark of Zorro serves up a succession of spectacular swordfights and gravity-defying stunts in lieu of an opulent production. Among the highlights is a scene where Zorro leads the soldiers of arch villain, Captain Juan Ramon, on a wild goose chase through the village and the climactic duel between Zorro and Ramon.
The public was obviously ready for a new brand of escapism because The Mark of Zorro became a box office smash and allowed Fairbanks the opportunity to create a new gallery of swashbuckling heroes, including D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Don Q Son of Zorro (1925), and The Black Pirate (1926). Director Fred Niblo would also go on to distinguish himself as a costume epic specialist with Blood and Sand (1922) and Ben-Hur (1925).
Director: Fred Niblo
Screenplay: Johnston McCulley
Cinematography: William C. McGann, Harris Thorpe
Art Direction: Edward M. Langley
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks (Don Diego Vega/Zorro), Marguerite De La Motte (Lolita Pulido), Robert McKim (Captain Juan Ramon), Noah Beery (Sergeant Gonzales), Charles Hill Mailes (Don Carlos Pulido).
by Jeff Stafford