I love the character of Zorro, an early prototype superhero. Without Zorro we probably wouldn’t have Batman. Created by author Johnston McCully in his 1919 book The Curse of Capistrano, wealthy landowner Diego Vega adopts the secret identity of “Senor Zorro” as he fights injustice in 19th century California. While occasionally using a gun or a whip, his primary weapon is a sword. And I guess that was the biggest appeal of the character to me, I like the idea of a dashing sword-fighter. I’ve also long-loved The Three Musketeers for the same reason.
But I was trying to think of this and I can’t remember exactly where I first discovered the character. I actually never read the original book or any of its sequels, so my knowledge came from one of his many live-action portrayals. I’ve reviewed the 1981 film Zorro, The Gay Blade before, where George Hamilton plays the dual role of the identical twin sons of the original Zorro, who has died, and they each take up the mantle of Zorro, with one son doing so in a flamboyant fashion.
I was still pretty young when I first saw this film (young enough to completely miss the double-meaning of “gay” in the title, or the obvious homosexual undertones of the “Bonnie” character), so I don’t know if this was my introduction to Zorro. It was probably either this or the 1974 made-for-TV movie, The Mark of Zorro.
This was a more serious straight-forward adaptation, with Frank Langella in the lead role as Don Diego de la Vega (as the character had been renamed in earlier portrayals) with Anne Archer as his love interest and Ricardo Montalban who stole the show, in my opinion, as the villainous Captain Esteban. While I know I loved this film as a kid (which I would have seen much later, I’m not quite old enough to have caught its first-run), rewatching it now (as you can do for free on Youtube if you wish), I have to say that the sword-fights are nowhere near as impressive as I remember.
There was also a cartoon series, The New Adventures of Zorro, which debuted in 1981, same year as The Gay Blade. I watched that too.
A couple of years after The Gay Blade, in 1983, Disney launched The Disney Channel on cable, and began airing reruns of the 1957 Zorro TV series, starring Guy Williams as the lead.
I haven’t rewatched any of this in a long time, so I don’t know how well it holds up, but I know I loved it as a kid. And in many ways I’ve long held Guy Williams as the standard for how all future Zorro actors should be judged, similar to the way I and many others judge Superman actors against Christover Reeve.
At around the same time, CBS created a new series, Zorro and Son, which was meant to be a direct continuation of the original Disney series.
It used the same theme song as the original TV series, and starred Henry Darrow as Deigo, still operating as Zorro, and his son Carlos, played by Paul Regina, whom Diego had trained to join him as…Zorro Jr. I only vaguely remember watching this. I also found this on Youtube and, oh boy, it’s not good. The concept is fine, and even wanting to take a more comedic tone could work, but they literally wrote it as a sitcom, complete with a laugh-track. No wonder it bombed after just 5 episodes.
Things got better in 1990, when The Family Channel began airing a new Zorro TV series, starring Duncan Regeher.
This show feels like a more natural successor to the original TV series. Interestingly enough, Henry Darrow would join the cast in season 2, taking over the role of Don Diego’s father (from Efram Zimbalist Jr., who played I’m in season 1). It was a decent show overall, although not exactly ground-breaking.
That show ended in 1993, but good times returned in 1998, with the release of the big budget feature film The Mask of Zorro.
This stars Antonio Banderas, but not as the traditional Zorro. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but many fans came to believe that the character of Zorro was based on a real-life 19th century Mexican-American outlaw named Joaquin Murrieta, although there is no evidence that McCulley had him in mind when he wrote his first novel. Nevertheless, the writers of this film (Ted Elliott, John Eskow, Terry Rossio, and Randall Jahnson) chose to tie the characters together, by having Banderas play Alejandro Murrieta, a fictional younger brother of Joaquin who gets recruited by an elder Diego de la Vega, played by Anthony Hopkins, who trains him to become the new Zorro and help him get revenge on the man who killed de la Vega’s wife and stole his daughter.
Hopkins and Banderas make a great team here. The training scenes are gold. Hopkins is quite believable as an elder Zorro, watching this makes you wish that 20 years earlier he could have starred in his own Zorro film.
Catherine Zeta-Jones plays his daughter, Elena. And her chemistry with Banderas is sizzling hot.
This film is overall my favorite Zorro portrayal. I loved it, and have rewatched it a bajillion times. I was anxious for more films. But even though this film was a clear hit, grossing $250 million on a $95 million budget, it took 7 years before they made a sequel.
2005’s The Legend of Zorro brings back Banderas and Zeta-Jones, along with the same director, and Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio working on the story, which was written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the magic just isn’t there this time. I can’t quite nail down what didn’t work for me, the general plot is fine, Zorro has to stop some plot by a secret European society and a Confederate general to stop California from joining the United States, but there’s a silly subplot where Elena is blackmailed into divorcing Alejandro without telling him why, and they have to deal with their rebellious son, Joaquin, and it just falls flat to me.
This film made a lot less money, although it also cost less to make and so still generated a prophet, and killed any momentum for further films. Although Banderas has expressed interest in returning to the role, and there was briefly talk of a film crossover with Quinten Tarantino’s Django character, which eventually became a comic-book series instead of a film.
But I’ve still been waiting for another live-action Zorro. There was a Spanish telenova called El Zorro, la espada y la rosa in 2007, which looks good, but I don’t speak Spanish so that’s not for me.
In recent years there have been a lot of new about various new Zorro projects. The CW is working on a TV series with a female lead, and Sobini Films is working on a film about a computer hacker who goes by the name of Zorro, but both are drastic re-imaginings of the concept. Disney is working on a new TV series featuring the traditional Zorro…but it’s set to star Wilmer Valderrama, whom I’m having a hard time picturing in the role. So at this point I’m just in “wait and see” mode.