Summer at the movies; it’s a time of blockbusters, mindless entertainment and just plain fun. But though the formula is pretty straightforward, many summer flicks suffer from the fact that they are indeed just mindless, loud and overly long. Thankfully amidst all the poor summer blockbusters (like Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean), there’s a handful of classics that reinvigorate the concept of a thrilling adventure film during the hot summer days and nights.
July 17th marks the 20th anniversary of one such film and a personal favorite for this critic. The Mask of Zorro (1998) captures all the essence of what a successful swashbuckling adventure film should have and ultimately moves us, informs and of course, greatly entertains its audience. One of my earliest memories of a movie as a child was Zorro and it played a significant role in my growing love of films.
Despite its great critical and financial success, however, in the years since its release The Mask of Zorro seems to have been overlooked in assessments of great summer movies; yet in revisiting it audiences will quickly remember why this movie is a modern classic and a fine example of good escapist cinema.
First appearing in 1919, the character Zorro (Spanish for Fox) has had a long history of success on the printed page and on the silver screen. Author Johnston McCulley’s popular stories led to several film adaptations most notably the 1920 silent film The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks in the title role and the 1940 remake with Tyrone Power. So loved was the figure of Zorro that even the creators of Batman acknowledged the influence of the character to the look and mantra of the Caped Crusader; both have secret identities, a secret cave for training and meditation, and of course an iconic black costume.
By the early 1990s producers at TriStar Pictures, with the backing of Steven Spielberg, knew the time was right to re-introduce this legend of American pulp fiction and movies back into the mainstream public consciousness. Though the early development stages of the film began inauspiciously (with several directors leaving the project, including Robert Rodriguez of later Spy Kids and Sin City fame), the proverbial pieces all fell into place as filming began in Mexico City.
Written by the screenwriting team of Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott ( who ironically would go on to work on the Pirates of the Caribbean series) and directed by James Bond veteran Martin Campbell (GoldenEye and later Casino Royale), The Mask of Zorro was able to succeed due to a wonderful blend of thrilling action sequences with a genuinely moving human story that audiences could invest in.
Don Diego de la Vega (the secret identity of Zorro) has fought for the rights of the oppressed people of Spanish California for decades (prior to Mexican and eventual American control), but he is aging and his enemies seem to only be getting stronger. When his family life is destroyed and his only daughter stolen from him by the corrupt governor Don Rafael, the now-imprisoned de la Vega sinks into despair awaiting his chance for vengeance. Twenty years later that chance appears, to not only take revenge against his foes but to train a new and younger Zorro to take his place.
In the role of the two Zorros, the master Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas create two different yet equally captivating personifications. As the former vigilante with everything taken from him, Hopkins’ de la Vega is reserved yet forceful. His laconic teachings and state of mind contrast sharply with the fiery temper and passion of Banderas’ Alejandro Murietta, now tasked with carrying on the legacy of the great Zorro.
The rapport between the two is initially antagonistic (and comical) but grows to a relationship like that between father and son; each man has a personal score to settle but in uniting for the common good of bringing justice to the oppressed and winning the love of the beautiful Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), de la Vega’s stolen daughter and Alejandro’s love, the long-dormant flame of Zorro awakens in a most brilliant way.
Indeed all the major cast learned to fence, dance and do acrobatic stunts to bring the story to life. Anchored by great performances and a story to care about, the sword-fighting and other action pieces including fighting while on horseback and swinging from balconies (like Robin Hood (1938) ) are both old-fashioned yet still fresh. The Zorro stories and this film have really captured a timeless appeal with its characters and morals, despite its 19th-century backdrop.
ZORRO EMBODIES THE TRAITS OF A CLASSIC HERO; AN IDEALIZED VANQUISHER OF EVIL IN A ROMANTIC, YET EQUALLY CORRUPT TIME PERIOD
Although fictional, the film incorporates many historical settings and people into its narrative which also provides a light education into the history of the United States. Prior to American acquisition of territory after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), California, Texas and other Western states shifted control from Spain and then Mexico.
As a defender and promoter of liberties and the rule of law, Zorro long embodied the spirit of American morality in the face of oppression. While he was not American, the character was created with all the bravado and courageousness of what a great American hero should be; set against the ‘romantic’ setting of colonial California, Zorro becomes thus an idealized vanquisher of evil in a romantic, yet equally corrupt time period.
The film versions all portrayed this romantic vision of Zorro, and The Mask of Zorro is no different. But this 1998 version was not goofy in its portrayal of romanticism, instead opting for a genuinely moving storyline. Though there are certainly some scenes that may fall in the category of campiness (Alejandro and Elena’s duel for instance, or freeing slave children from a mine) the heart of this film is rooted in a real respect for the time period and the ideals of Zorro, even if they are occasionally over the top.
With a number of witty one-liners as well (” What I am saying, Captain, is that I think my horse could run this army better than you!”) and clever visual gags, The Mask of Zorro delivers in a most complete way. Emotional, thrilling, informative and funny it’s a well rounded swashbuckling adventure.
And of course one would be remiss if not acknowledging the power of music to the film, and the truly wonderful score by the late great James Horner. Widely known for his Academy Award-winning score for Titanic, Horner’s other noteworthy film scores include Braveheart and Avatar, yet it is the utterly stupendous music of Zorro that really encapsulates his musical genius.
Filled with great Spanish/Mexican melodies and sounds (castanets, tap dancing, and beautiful trumpets), listening to Zorro’s score isn’t just a thrilling experience, but a terrible reminder to us of what a tragedy James Horner’s 2015 death truly was. The film’s main theme “I Want to Spend my Lifetime Loving You“, as sung by Marc Anthony and Tina Arena captures all the romance while tracks like “The Plaza of Execution” and “Zorro’s Theme” soar with tremendous musical lyricism.
While the list of summer blockbusters is numerous, only a few can actually have the distinction of saying they have left positive impressions on us. The Mask of Zorro is a definite winner in its genre that provides all the goods for moviegoers of any kind. Magnetic performances, thrilling adventure, moving and funny humanity and an exceptional score brought the legend of Zorro back into its rightful limelight.
It is indeed possible to laugh, cry, cheer, and be informed all in one movie, and one does not need to look further than The Mask of Zorro. A true treat, even now 20 years later it should remain the film of choice when asked to name one of the great summer adventures of the movies.