Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell in The Mark of Zorro (1940)



(director: Rouben Mamoulian; screenwriters: John Taintor Foote/Garrett Elsden Fort/based on the novel The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston; cinematographer: Arthur C. Miller; editor: Robert Bischoff; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Tyrone Power (Zorro), Linda Darnell (Lolita Quintero), Basil Rathbone (Captain Estaban Pasquale), Gale Sondergaard (Inez Quintero), Eugene Pallette (Fray Felipe), J. Edward Bromberg (Don Luis Quintero), Montagu Love (Don Alejandro Vega), Janet Beecher (Senora Isabella Vega), George Regas (Sergeant Gonzales); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Raymond Griffith/Darryl F. Zanuck; Fox Video; 1940)

“It’s one of the all-time great swashbucklers.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Though filmed many times before, this version is better than those that came before and after. It’s one of the all-time great swashbucklers. The screenplay is based on the 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley. Under the refreshing direction of Rouben Mamoulian (“Blood and Sand”/”Silk Stockings”/”The Gay Desperado”), the adventure story moves along at a brisk pace. Its adventure story reminds one of the 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. Though Tyrone Power is less athletic than the star of the 1920 silent film original version of Zorro, Douglas Fairbanks, he easily makes up for it by being a more dashing hero.

It opens in the early 19th century (around 1820) at Madrid’s military academy. Don Diego de Vega (TyronePower) is diligently training to be a swordsman. Diego is called back home to California by his father Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love), a nobleman who serves as alcalde (mayor) of Los Angeles. He’s distressed at the poor conditions in the pueblo settlement of Los Angeles, which is under the Spanish flag. He’s further distressed to learn that his father has been supplanted as alcalde by the ineffectual, feckless, and oafish Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), who has unfairly raised the taxation of the local peasantry beyond their ability to pay and set himself up as tyrant. Quintero’s avaricious wife Inez is played with the right amount of meanness by Gale Sondergaard. The villainous captain of the guard, Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), put Quintero in power and sinisterly controls him like a puppet. Diego’s father, like the other caballeros of the region, despise this regime but are too gentlemanly and too fearful to act. They believe in upholding the law, right or wrong. Recognizing the situation, Diego feigns being a pampered, lazy fop. It draws contempt from his dad and community, but the rulers leave him alone as they regard him as harmless. This gives Diego the chance to execute his devilish plan.

Diego disguises himself as the masked bandit Zorro, and begins to rob Quintero and his patrons of their wealth. He returns the stolen money to the poor, from whom it has been extracted. Zorro is helped by the local clergyman Friaf Filipe (Eugene Pallette), who collects the money to return to the peons.

Diego, at the same time, mounts a campaign of terror against Quintero that will eventually force his resignation and the reappointment of Don Alejandro as alcalde. Zorro’s deeds are announced by leaving his calling card, the mark of a Z, after every encounter. The calculating Quintero believes it would be politically expedient to marry off his pretty daughter Lolita (Linda Darnell) to Don Diego, thereby joining his family with that of his main rival–someone beloved by the ordinary citizens. But before the wedding, Quintero learns the true identity of Zorro and the two forces clash.

Mamoulian has kept the picture thrilling as a fairy-tale-like romantic romp. Its elegant, flighty, colorful, filled with great dueling scenes (especially the one between Power and Rathbone), and it all looks just splendid.