Few fictional heroes have gone through the cinematic wringer like good ol' Zorro has. Originally created in 1919 by magazine pulp-writer Johnston McDulley, Zorro is a bringer of justice, a dashing sword-slinger, and a guy with a seriously clever alter ego.
See, when Zorro's not running about in his little mask and cape, he's posing as the entirely wimpy (and more than a little effete) Don Diego Vega. The possibility that Vega could be the amazingly adept saber-rattler never once occurs to the villains ... mainly because Vega is such a serious little priss. (The fact that Zorro and Diego look a whole lot alike is never really touched upon; consider it a variation on the astonishing camouflage techniques inherent in Clark Kent's eyeglasses.)
The first big-budget talkie featuring the swashbuckling do-gooder, Rouben Mamoulian's The Mark of Zorro was a big hit upon its theatrical release in 1940, and it continues to be remembered quite fondly as one of the era's very best adventure stories. It might take a good little while for the film to get ramped up and ready to roll, but that's just how they made 'em back then! But patient moviewatchers will be treated to a flick that's pretty packed with romance, action, treachery, and heroic derring-do material.
The plot diverges just a little bit from the source material (and the earlier silent films), but the essentials are all here: Don Diego Vega is asked to return from Madrid to his family home in Los Angeles, but upon his arrival he finds that his father's position as "alcalde" has been usurped by the licentious Don Luis Quintero, a villain who's nothing more than a lackey to the man holding the real power: Captain Esteban Pasquale. Needless to say, Vega/Zorro plans to hang around in Los Angeles just long enough to unseat the villains, woo a lovely piece of forbidden fruit, and bring justice to his family's hometown. Nothing revolutionary here, structure-wise, but there's nothing wrong with a simple adventure story well-told.
As the title character and his wimpish alter ego, Tyrone Power grabs both roles with both hands and has a grand ol' time with both. His Diego is entirely charming and unassuming ... if just a little bit awkward. And when Power gets to don the cape, the mask, the hat, and the saber, well, that's when things start to get cookin'.
Film lovers raised on the "non-stop breakneck pace" sort of action movies produced today may find themselves checking their watch a few times, but while The Mark of Zorro may take its time getting started, the flick as a whole really packs an enjoyable old-school movie experience. The film's biggest asset is its director; veteran of silents and talkies alike, Rouben Mamoulian strikes a light and colorful tone during the action scenes and a mildly harsher approach during the noir-esque nighttime scenes. (Originally released in black & white at a time when color was all the rage, The Mark of Zorro boasts some rather excellent cinematography by Arthur C. Miller.)
It's easy to see why the Zorro character has maintained his appeal over so many years; not at all unlike everyone's favorite son of Krypton, Zorro fights for the innocent, keeps his "true" self hidden beneath a costume, and commits all sorts of action-tastic feats of heroism. The character might seem more than a little quaint by today's standards, but in a cinematic arena that has room for guys like Rambo, Riddick, and those brutal lunatics in Sin City, surely we can always find a spot for a zippy, zesty do-gooder like Zorro.
Heck, Antonio Banderas has done a pretty solid job of updating the hero for a modern audience while maintaining the guy's old-fashioned approach. And if you really dig those newer entries (The Mask of Zorro (1998) and The Legend of Zorro (2005), that is), there's very little reason to think you wouldn't enjoy a nostalgic trip back to the guy's earliest screen adventures. (OK, it was actually Douglas Fairbanks who portrayed the first cinematic Zorro, but Mr. Power's was the first one who could talk.)
Video: The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 (full frame) aspect ratio, but here's a little twist you may or may not appreciate: Fox has decided to deliver a colorized version on one side of the platter, and the original B&W rendition on the other. The purists will be happy to own the B&W version, but purists are exactly the sort who hate the very concept of "colorized" movies in the first place. Either way, both are included here, which makes everyone happy (except those pesky purists.)
Picture quality on the B&W version (sue me; I'm a purist) is quite excellent, considering the flick is presently 65 years old.
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, or the original Mono soundtrack in your choice of English or Spanish. Optional subtitles are available in the same two languages.
Extras: The main goodie is a feature-length audio commentary with film critic & historian Richard Schickel, which is, as expected, packed with tons of historical information, cast & crew tidbits, and lots of Zorro-related trivia in general. Solid commentary for the old-school movie freaks. Also included is a 45-minute special entitled Tyrone Power: The Last Idol, which is a "Biography" special produced for the A&E network. Par for the "Biography" course, this piece is a thorough and compelling encapsulation of Tyrone Power's life-story, and it makes for a perfect inclusion on this particular DVD; anyone who loves The Mark of Zorro probably has some affection for its leading man, after all.
There's also a truckload of trailers for All About Eve, An Affair to Remember, Anastasia, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Gentleman's Agreement, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, How Green Was My Valley, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.
You don't go in to a "Golden Age" adventure story expecting the sheer volume and crazy kinetics of our modern action movies (and if you do, you're a nut!), but if you've got a soft spot for classic, romantic pulp stories, then you'll find a lot worth revisiting in The Mark of Zorro. It might not rank up there with old-time favorites like The Adventures of Robin Hood or Captain Blood, but it comes close enough to earn that "classic" status, plus it's just a big, juicy jolt of ancient escapist fun.