Millionaire playboy whose identity is known to only a few puts on a black costume and mask to parade around at night, ensuring that justice and peace is maintained as well as possible in the face of corruption, political meddling, and law enforcement incompetence.
No, not Batman. This is the story of Zorro, the fox, a thorn in the side of the early 19th Century Mexican government of California. But despite the parallels to the caped crusader, the story of Zorro more closely parallels that of the English hero Robin Hood and, more directly, that of Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, created by Baroness Orczy about 15 years before the first Zorro story was written. Because of the existence of Robin Hood, you can’t really say that Johnston McCulley, creator of Zorro, stole the idea of the masked hero with the noble alibi from Orczy, but the parallels are certainly there. At the very least, you could say there was inspiration.
In any case, I suspect that nearly every reader of Broadswords and Blasters has heard of Zorro, as he is one of the most enduring and widest-known heroes of the pulp era, no doubt due more to the likes of Douglas Fairbanks’ portrayal in the very early silent film The Mark of Zorro1 than the original written work. But just in case you’ve been living under a rock, Zorro is the hero of Los Angeles, who fights to protect the California citizens from the corrupt gold-hungry power of the Mexican governor. By day he is a foppish nobleman, a Don, by the name of Diego Vega (later de la Vega), but at night he puts his prowess with sword, whip, and pistol to work, making sure that the people of Los Angeles are taken care of. And he famously carves a Z into his victims with three slashes of his iconic rapier.
Zorro was first serialized in 1919 as The Curse of Capistrano2. McCulley was notoriously inconsistent with details, including glossing over such important details as the fact that Vega was unmasked at the end of Capistrano and the villain dead, only to have Zorro’s identity protected and the main villain still alive in the very next story.
I think my first encounter with the character was in reruns of the Disney-produced tv series, and then the talkie remake of The Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power, with Basil Rathbone portraying the main villain. It’s safe to say that Rathbone is the real draw, but the film holds up as well as any black-and-white film from the 1940s. That is to say, if you have the patience for the directorial decisions and limitations of the time period, you’ll enjoy this version. It’s hard to provide the same sort of support for the Fairbanks’ originals, even though the swordplay is probably better.
And then there is the recent(ish) versions starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones at the heights of both of their popularity. They’re fun and scratch the Zorro itch pretty well, but strangely don’t hold up as well as the older films and shows. It’s partly because they seem to be more emblematic of the time period of their creation.
It certainly helps that the dashing costume exudes cool. The sombrero, black mask, black outfit, and flowing cape are clear inspirations for the Batman costume, and with good reason.
As an anti-government Mexican criminal who plagues the ruling class and protects the common people from corruption in government, you have to wonder if Zorro would play quite as well in the modern day political climate.
1 Because the movie is public domain, you can watch the Fairbanks original courtesy of archive.org.