From The Washington Post, January 1, 2021
Fairbanks introduced moviegoers to a Spanish aristocrat in 1820s California — a blue blood who believes in blue-state values: fair play for the poor and protection of the innocent. He flouts arbitrary laws and challenges corrupt and sadistic officials.
The tale is simple: girl meets outlaw and outlaw brings down government. The villain is an ambitious commandant who executes an amoral governor’s orders by torturing priests, Native Americans and peons, terrorizing the underclass and ruining righteous families, including the heroine’s. He longs for her; she yearns for Zorro.
Out of disguise, the masked outlaw who duels with a grin and woos with ardor, morphs into blasé upper-cruster Don Diego Vega, who suffers from overrefinement and chronic fatigue.
Fairbanks and his collaborators (director Fred C. Niblo, co-writer Eugene Miller) alchemized Anglo pulp writer Johnston McCulley’s 1919 serial, “The Curse of Capistrano,” into a jaunty epic about a master swordsman who funnels puckish humor and outrageous acrobatics into idealistic quests. Formulaic action scenes became riotous steeplechases as Zorro surmounted obstacles with somersaults and handsprings, sometimes pausing for a snack.
Like Tennyson’s Sir Galahad, Zorro has the strength of 10 because his heart is pure. He’s also irreverent and mischievous. His sparkle exudes hipness: He embraces the New World’s egalitarian ethos while his enemies defend the feudal past.
Zorro lifted spirits in the 1920s. In the 2020s, his ebullience can generate ecstatic highs.
During Fairbanks’s previous run as the parody hero of contemporary action comedies like “His Picture in the Papers,” fans came to think of him as “Doug,” a tribute to his offhand elegance — like Fred Astaire’s, a triumph of talent and willpower. Doug transports this knockabout grace into “The Mark of Zorro.” With his light heart and “can-do” demeanor — qualities the world embraced as quintessentially American — Zorro soon dominated action-film iconography. Cinema would never be the same.