The P.C. Zorro
By Eric Cox
The Legend of Zorro
Released by Columbia Pictures
Rated PG for violence, language, and suggestive moments.
The hero is an interesting literary phenomenon. He is frequently aligned with the cause of nationalism, and has been so at least since the European monarchs began consolidating power in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
In more recent times, as modern states became more diverse, the ethnic or regional hero emerged, representing the aspirations of racial or economic groups.
For these reasons, heroes can be significant objects of study, both socially and politically—particularly as they change over time.
A case in point is the new film The Legend of Zorro, the premise of which is a politically correct inversion of American history.
In the film, the Mexican inhabitants of California clamor to win their “independence” from Mexico in 1850 and join the Union, while the evil, racist Anglos want nothing more than to thwart their aspirations for statehood—partly because they don’t like Mexicans and partly because they don’t want California to join the Union as a non-slave state.
The historical reality was a little different, of course. It was a small band of American settlers taking advantage of the Mexican-American War who declared California an independent republic in 1846, a development that the Mexican citizens living there did not exactly welcome with open arms. Mexico ceded the land to the U.S. in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Although a few wealthy Mexican ranchers were part of the constitutional convention that decided to seek statehood, the opening scene of The Legend of Zorro, in which thousands of happy Mexicans cast their ballots in favor of joining the Union and enthusiastically cheer a pro-Union politician, is probably a bit of a stretch.
But the film’s revisionism is in keeping with a long tradition.
Joaquin Murietta, the outlaw on whom the Zorro legend is based, was a modern-day Robin Hood who came to California from Mexico seeking his fortune during the Gold Rush of the 1850s. When he encountered racist exclusion, he instead formed a gang and stole what he could not earn. He has long served as a symbol of Mexican resistance to perceived Anglo-American racism, greed, and political domination.
However, when an early twentieth-century American writer created the fictional Zorro, loosely based on Murietta, he transformed him into a swashbuckling Mexican aristocrat who fought against the corruption of the Spanish government on behalf of the peasants of Spanish California. This legend first hit American movie screens in the silent film The Mark of Zorro (1920), starring the decidedly non-Mexican Douglas Fairbanks.
At any rate, The Legend of Zorro, a sequel by the same filmmakers to The Mask of Zorro (1998), attempts to capture the spirit of early Hollywood adventure films, and for that it deserves credit. But it is a pale imitation of its predecessors.
The main storyline is a family drama in which Alejandro de la Vega/Zorro (Antonio Banderas) has promised his wife, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to hang up his black mask for good and settle into a comfortable domestic life as husband and father to their young son. But before Alejandro can do that, he must spring into action one last time to thwart the plot of a mysterious Anglo villain to sabotage the statehood effort (this villain presumably being the early-California equivalent of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi).
Meanwhile a wealthy landowner, who is secretly behind the anti-statehood plot, blackmails Elena into leaving Alejandro, which she does without telling him the real reason. And so Zorro must fight not only for his new state and country but also to keep his family together.
Throw in a few comic action sequences—bad guys landing on cacti and the like—and that’s pretty much the movie. It has been designed and marketed as a “family film,” which means it is too silly to be taken seriously by adults, and it certainly lives up to its billing.
Far more intriguing than the movie’s plot, however, is its ideological re-reinterpretation of the Zorro legend itself.
This latest, multicultural version of the Zorro myth is an attempt to reconcile Latino identity politics with American patriotism and to dish it up as fun for the whole family. From both a historical and political perspective, the result is outlandishly bizarre, but fortunately for Columbia Pictures, there is little danger that the vast majority of American filmgoers will take any notice.
Eric Cox is a movie columnist for The American Enterprise Online.