The Sign of Zorro

The Sign of Zorro.
Walt Disney Pictures 1958.

Before watching the movie:

I previously reviewed The Mask of Zorro, but where that is a reboot, this appears to be the actual origin story. I can kind of see now that maybe the other movie didn’t want to reintroduce audiences to a hero who can do the things he does mainly because he’s wealthy. We accept it in Batman because Batman has never been that far away from popular culture, but Zorro’s time in our collective imagination has mostly passed. So instead of a Bruce Wayne story, the reboot gave audiences Terry McGinnis. But I’m not here to talk about “Mask”.

I’m expecting a pretty straightforward classic adventure story, where the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, and right is restored in the end.

After watching the movie:

Don Diego de la Vega returns from study in Spain to his family villa in Spanish Los Angeles at the request of his father. The elder De la Vega is incensed by the abuses of Capitan Monastario, the head of the local military force, upon the town, and wants his son to take up direct opposition to Monastario’s power. Diego, however, realizes that an open challenge against Monastario would be futile, and instead of fighting with strength, chooses to fight with the cunning of the fox, creating the mantle of Zorro to hide his identity. Through several skirmishes with the Capitan, Zorro becomes a hero of the people, and alerts the Crown to what is happening in Los Angeles.

I didn’t realize when I selected this movie that it’s an edit of four episodes of the Zorro tv series. It did feel very episodic, but there was still more of a flow than I would have expected from the television productions of the day. It felt more like chapters of a book of adventures than standalone adventures spliced together.

Most of the dialogue scenes have a strong feel of pantomime or something similar. Diego isn’t making decisions or figuring things out, he’s announcing what he decided or found out. There’s a sense of hitting the right marks to illustrate a story everyone is supposed to already know or make sure that the very young children understand what’s happening. As the story progresses, there’s less of this feeling, but there’s also less need for exposition. It’s like the writers just used a jackhammer to lay the pipe they needed to lay.

Pretty much all of the characters have a very strong Spaniard appearance, at least to my untrained eye (though I note that very few of the actors seem to have much Hispanic or Latin heritage). However, there is almost no effort to perform accents. Sometimes there’s a sliver of a Spanish accent that feels very much like an affectation, but nobody cared about sounding the part, or else there was an active decision to sound American for American audiences.

The end feels like it could have easily gone in a “the legend continues” direction, either by showing Diego continue his broader mission against injustice in Los Angeles, or it also came extremely close to suggesting that others have taken up the mantle honorably and Diego can retire, but instead it was just a typical “Superhero gets somebody to put on the uniform to protect the secret identity” trope. There are a few other things that it felt like it was setting up that went nowhere, but considering this is an edit of TV episodes, perhaps they were cut out for time and tight plotting. It ends up just feeling like missed potential.

This is essentially a Zorro sampler. It tells a more or less complete story, but there is of course much room for more adventures in between, which the TV series no doubt fills. There are undoubtedly better movie adaptations, but maybe the TV series is at least as good as this.

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