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Zorro cuts a dash

Hollywood's Hispanic superhero returns to the screen

Antonio Banderas (top and above, far l.) and Catherine Zeta-Jones star in 'The Legend of Zorro.'
"Zorro is the first Spanish superhero," says Antonio Banderas, who revives the role in "The Legend of Zorro," opening Friday. "Maybe he's the first superhero of any kind. He's a combination of legend and fact and the inspiration for the generations of heroes to come."

Banderas may be right. In 1928, 13-year-old Bob Kane went with his parents to see Douglas Fairbanks in "The Mark of Zorro" (1920) and was enthralled.

Years later, Kane would pay homage to both Fairbanks and Zorro by putting the film's title on the marquee of the movie theater that the parents of young Bruce Wayne leave just before they are murdered. Bruce, of course, became Batman, who, with his cape, secret identity and cave concealed in a mansion, was a modern incarnation of Zorro.

Zorro has been brought back again and again over the years (see timeline, below). This year he finally made it out of the ranks of pulp and into literature with the publication of an Isabel Allende novel named for him.

With every version, says Alex Kurtzman, who wrote the screenplay for "The Legend of Zorro" with Robert Orci, "Zorro has become darker, more dangerous - sexier. Let's face it, he's an outlaw. He operates outside the realm of respectable society. Women are attracted to the quality of mystery about him."

Men are also intrigued by him - and envious. Zorro lives every regular guy's fantasy life: He conquers evil and, for his reward, is beckoned to candlelit balcony windows. Then he gets to sleep late.

"One of the best things about Zorro," Orci says, "is that you don't have to try hard to make him 'relevant.' He never goes out of style."

"The Legend of Zorro's" director Martin Campbell also made "The Mask of Zorro" (1998) with Banderas. He says the character "may be the only adventure hero created before the 1930s who was instantly recognizable to movie fans of all ages around the world."

Best known for the 1995 James Bond film "GoldenEye," Campbell was the third director attached to "The Mask of Zorro." Steven Spielberg and Robert Rodriguez had bowed out because of prior commitments, though Spielberg stayed on as an executive producer.

"I was thrilled to have the opportunity," Campbell says. "I grew up with the Zorro films and TV show. I must say that I think the [1940] Tyrone Power film ['The Mark of Zorro'] is a bit overrated, and in 'The Mask of Zorro' I wanted to take things back to the dash and athleticism of the Fairbanks original."

The action sequences in "The Mask of Zorro" and "The Legend of Zorro" were choreographed by the great "fight master" Bob Anderson. They buck the trend of special-effects-enhanced fight sequences that have been fashionable since the success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000).

"I have nothing at all against that style of action," Campbell says, "but I love to see the natural motion of the human body."

IN GIANT STEPS

Like Campbell's first Zorro film, "The Legend of Zorro" was shot in Mexico. He recalls: "In the first film, the location for the opening scene in the courtyard was so perfect, I thought 'Why hasn't someone used this in a movie before?' I didn't find out until later that someone had used it before - Sergei Eisenstein had come over from Russia in 1931 and shot much of 'Que Viva Mexico!' there. I'm afraid I didn't show proper reverence to the fact that I was shooting on the same spot where one of the greatest directors in movie history had previously worked."

The new film was shot at a hacienda about four hours north of Mexico City. Campbell describes it as "more lovely than any movie set could have been."

He is reluctant to give away much of the plot, but insists it "takes the character in a completely new direction. Zorro's world has changed, and he must now deal with issues such as statehood that were undreamt of when he was a boy."

Banderas sees Zorro as a figure of nobility in an age of technology. "He fights with the traditional Spanish weapon, the sword, and disdains the impersonal Anglo-Saxon weapon, the gun."

Zorro originated with a New York-born journalist named Johnston McCulley, who had moved to California in 1908. McCulley had no idea he was creating a superhero industry when he submitted his story "The Curse of Capistrano" to All-Story Weekly, a pulp magazine, in 1919. He just needed the money.

Its hero was Spanish nobleman Diego Vega, who, as his alter ego, Zorro - Spanish for fox - fought for the rights of oppressed Californian peasants. The tale (recently republished by Penguin Classics) was a success, but it's doubtful anyone would remember it today if Douglas Fairbanks hadn't bought the rights to the piece and transformed it into his 1920 swashbuckling smash.

ENTER THE MASK

Fairbanks' Zorro is more recognizable to modern fans than McCulley's. A remarkable athlete and stuntman, Fairbanks transformed "The Fox" into an action hero and gave him the first superhero costume, replete with black mask. McCulley, seeing a good thing, incorporated Fairbanks' hero into his own creation and wrote several more Zorro stories. A legend and an industry were born.

The legend is rooted in both literature and reality. McCulley apparently borrowed from Baroness Emmuska Orczy's 1905 adventure romance, "The Scarlet Pimpernel," about an English spy who rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine during the Paris terrors. McCulley, though, made one important change: His hero lived outside the law and fought for the poor, not the aristocracy.

Zorro had historical predecessors as well. McCulley had heard stories about the most famous bandit of the Gold Rush era, Joaquin Murieta, who was called by one biographer "The Robin Hood of El Dorado." Murieta was thought to have been killed in 1853, and his head preserved in a jar. (Chilean poet Pablo Neruda believed Joaquin to have been an émigré of his country and wrote a play, "The Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta," in which the head of Joaquin relates his life story from the jar.)

In "The Mask of Zorro," Banderas' character becomes the new Zorro to avenge the death of his brother, Joaquin Murieta.

This time around, Zorro must not only deal with his foes but contend with the problem of being Zorro and maintaining his family. His wife has become increasingly disenchanted with his spending so much time away.

"Of course," says Campbell, "since his wife is played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, there's a big inducement to stay home."

The movie's posters in the New York subways make it clear, however, that Zeta-Jones' Elena has no more a domestic role now than she did in the first film.

"She kicks a- in this one," Campbell says, "even more than in the first one. Her character is certainly more applicable to today's woman than a Spanish noblewoman of 1850s California. But all period movies, no matter how they try to convey a sense of the past, must contain anachronisms. With a bit of luck, you can reflect the glory of the past and combine it with the sensibility of the modern age. Each generation will get the Zorro it deserves."

Zorro through the years

1919 "The Curse of Capistrano," Johnston McCulley's first Zorro story, appears in pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. A hero is born.

1920 Fred Niblo directs "The Mark of Zorro," based on "The Curse of Capistrano" and starring Douglas Fairbanks. Dressed in black, Zorro is a chandelier-swinging, balcony-climbing action hero. The film was one of the biggest box-office smashes of the decade. A hero evolves.

1925 Fairbanks returns in "Don Q Son of Zorro," directed by Donald Crisp.

1940 Rouben Mamoulian directs "The Mark of Zorro" remake. Tyrone Power plays Zorro, Linda Darnell is the love interest, and, most memorable of all, Basil Rathbone is the villain. The Power-Rathbone duel is considered by swashbuckler fans to be superior to Rathbone's swordfight with Errol Flynn in 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood."

1957-59 Walt Disney's handsomely mounted and well-written TV series "Zorro" has millions of American kids singing the words of its theme song, "Out of the night, when the full moon is bright ..." and writing Z's on walls with chalk-tipped swords. Thanks to reruns on the Disney Channel, Guy Williams (later to play the father on "Lost in Space") remains many fans' favorite Zorro.

1981 "Zorro, the Gay Blade" is a Zorro comedy that wouldn't have shamed Mel Brooks, though it was actually directed by Peter Medak. George Hamilton stars as both The Fox and his long lost twin brother, who prefers red, white and gold to basic black.

1981 Henry Darrow voices the hero in "Zorro," a well-made cartoon series. He's the first Hispanic actor to star as the most famous of all Hispanic heroes.

1998 In "The Mask of Zorro," Don Diego (Anthony Hopkins) passes the torch to a new generation in this colorful, exciting and hugely popular Zorro update. The film contains elements not only of the Zorro legend but makes witty references to earlier Zorro films and TV shows. Antonio Banderas dances and duels with Catherine Zeta-Jones in the role that makes her a star.

Originally published on October 23, 2005

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