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Silent Cinema - The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Posted: December 22, 2019

It’s saturday night, and I’m not sleeping! Instead I’m wathing an old silent film again. This time, 1920’s The Mark of Zorro. This is a fun one, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Info

Directed by: Fred Niblo Produced by: Douglas Fairbanks Written by: Johnston McCulley (story), Douglas Fairbanks (scenario) Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Mottell. Noah Beery. Robert McKim

Context

The Mark of Zorro is the genre defining adventure film, the first swash buckler, the first film adaptation of the 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano, which is in turn the first film appearance of Zorro. It’s one of Fairbanks first serious films (up to this point, he’d made comedies!) and it cements his role as one of the most influential figures in early Hollywood. This was the first film released by United Artists.

This is the best version of this film of which I am aware, though it suffers without a soundtrack. Please note the year of release! While motion pictures as a commercial medium had existed at this point for roughly 24 years, technological and economic advances meant that the feature length film as we know it today was essentially brand new in 1920. To say that this film had wide reaching influence doesn’t take it far enough, this film defined what Hollywood could and would be for years to come.

Review

It’s a silent film from 1920, so we gotta get that out of the way up front. That means the camera work is stiff, the pacing is weird, and the acting is over the top.

Now, that being said, it’s a Good silent film from 1920. I would have never guessed it had come that early from having seen it. Much of what this film does, of what Fairbanks and Niblo do, wouldn’t be replicated outside of their work for many years. It’s still missing a few of the techniques and elements that would develop in the next several years (use of shadow and lightening, camera movement, subtlety.) but it manages to be exciting, in spite of that.

Fairbanks, it must be said, is pretty Ugly by modern standards. I cannot imagine a world in which he could become a leading man today. He has a face made for a mask, and he wears the mask well. He chews the scenery a bit in this one, but it works.

It’s an action flick, the prototypical action flick, and there’s a lot to recommend. Especially noteworthy are a few of the stunts and gags in the fight scenes. Fairbanks can JUMP and he does that here to great effect. The whole film is worth it for the chase scene at the end.

Other thoughts

I wish very much that an HD release of this film were available. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for a print on all the standard auction sites so that I can make one myself, but the chances of stumbling on one are pretty slim. Maybe Critereon or Kino will do us the favor. This seems like it would be a perfect candidate to DeOldify, but we’d need a cleaner, better print.

Zorro is kind of a weird character for me. He’s fighting for Native American rights in California under Spanish Rule. He’s a member of the Spanish aristocracy. The whole thing is a pretty typical White Savior story. That being said, here at least the story is fairly tasteful. Remarkably so for a movie from 1920 depicting people of color.

The movie was remade in 1940, and that version is Better than this one in several important respects, but this is worth watching in spite of the existence of a superior remake, both for the historic importance of the film and also as a work of entertainment.

The Original Text

The original text was serialized in All Story Weekly starting in August of 1919. I can’t seem to find a transcription or a scan of this issue anywhere! The novel was later repakaged as a single text in 1924, under the title The Mark of Zorro. This version is allegedly still under copyright, but that won’t matter in two weeks!


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