March 9, 2013

Queer Review: The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Mark of Zorro
Director: Fred Niblo
Writer: Johnston McCulley. Based upon his novel The Curse of Capistrano
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Motte, Robert McKim, Noah Beery, Charles Hill Mailes, Tote Du Crow, Walt Whitman, Claire McDowell, George Periolat

This 1920 silent film about Señor Zorro (Mr. Fox) contains more subtexts then one can shake a saber at. While not completely subverting the macho hero/effeminate villain paradigm, The Mask of Zorro does manage to come close.

The year is approximately 1820 and the oppressive Governor of California, Alvarado (George Periolat) has found his authority challenged by a masked vigilante, Señor Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks). His right hand man, Capitán Juan Ramon (Robert McKim), vows to capture Zorro, only to find himself humiliated when Zorro beats him in a dual. Meanwhile, the effete Don Diego Vega (who is really Zorro) is being pressured by his father, Don Alejandro (Sidney De Gray) to marry Lolita Pulido (Marguerite De La Motte), whose family is being persecuted by Governor Alvarado. This leads to an unfortunate love triangle when Capitán Ramon also falls for the beautiful Lolita.

The Queering
If you noticed any similarities between Zorro and Batman in the synopsis, they are not coincidences. Bob Kane admitted that the character of Zorro inspired the development of Batman. Here, in The Mark of Zorro the similarities can be seen everything from a proto-Bat cave to the trusty servant, Bernardo (Tote Du Crow).

Other elements that can be observed to have been mimicked in later superhero stories is the secret identity, Señor Zorro/Don Diego Vega, concept. It has been commented on that this element of the superhero mythos mimics that of the closeted gay or lesbian. That is, many superheros present themselves as "normal" during the day but at night, take on a different personality to fight crime. What makes Zorro interesting to me, is just how feminine Don Diego Vega was presented. In his first entrance, he is shown making a theatrical entrance to a bar using an umbrella. He even snorts tobacco (smoking it was considered "unladylike", so woman of the time would sniff tobacco instead). More importantly, he feigns a disinterest in girls, much to his father's consternation.

At the end, when Zorro is forced out of the closet, it can be seen as a reversal of the normal "coming out" experienced by LGBTQ people. Here, it's the effeminate, sub-textually gay personality that is revealed to truly be a heterosexual, butch avenger.

Further subversiveness is found in the role of Capitán Juan Ramon, who demonstrates sexual interest in Lolita. Granted, this is not a complete subversion of the butch hero/femme baddie, but Ramon is not shown to be any less masculine than Zorro and is certainly more butch than Don Diego Vega.

There is one element I found interesting that does not get replicated very much in the superhero genre, which is that Zorro is very specifically fighting a governmental authority figure, not a criminal enterprise. Superman fights "for truth, justice, and the American way". While Gotham's Police Department is shown to be utterly corrupt in Batman Begins, during The Dark Knight Rises Batman is shown fighting side by side with Gotham's Law Enforcement. Spiderman pretty much exclusively fights criminals and mad scientists. Professor Xavier in the X-Men films actually support the status quo, while Magneto is the one who attempts insurrection.

However, in spite of it's subversiveness, The Mark of Zorro is not a great film as the writing and plot were fairly simplistic overall. I must admit though, that the fight scenes with their over the top stunts and Zorro engaging in bizarre behavior in order to taunt his enemies, were certainly fun to watch. For the time period, the acting seemed fairly sedate from my perspective, although that might have been because I had recently watched Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

Overall, a lesser silent film, but one worth taking the time to seek out for it's subversiveness and the absurd fight sequences. Would be worth getting marked with a "Z" upon one's flesh in order to see.

The Rating
*** out of ****


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