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What the legend of Zorro tells us about the history of America

The United States loves a hero, preferably masked and leading a double life. And if there's a little confusion over the accuracy of the events depicted, well, who cares. It's Hollywood, for heaven's sake. Andrew Gumbel reports from Los Angeles on the latest incarnation, which opens in the UK this week

Tuesday 25 October 2005 00:00 BST

The result was The Mask of Zorro, a throwback to the swordsmanship and gallantry of Douglas Fairbanks Sr and Tyrone Power, which turned out to be a highly entertaining romp of a movie, made scads of money at the box-office and turned a certain young Welsh actress called Catherine Zeta-Jones into a major international star.

And that, it seemed, was that. The film industry has a notoriously short attention span, and in short order Hollywood was busy reinventing all sorts of other neglected genres, from the swords-and-sandals epic (Gladiator) to the comic book action-adventure (X-Men, Spider-Man and so on) to the retro appeal - distinctly limited, as it turned out - of 1970s television shows (Bewitched, Scooby Doo).

Suddenly, though, Zorro seems to be everywhere again. Isabel Allende, of all people, published a novel about the masked social crusader over the summer. The Gipsy Kings are writing a Zorro musical, set to debut in the West End sometime next year. Several Zorro comics and at least one graphic novel are in the works. A Zorro Television Companion was published last month, for aficionados of both the Disney serial from the 1950s, starring Guy Williams, and a more recent small-screen incarnation starring Duncan Regehr, which first aired in the late 1980s.

And, topping them all, is the sequel to the 1998 movie, The Legend of Zorro, which opens worldwide this Friday and once again pairs Zeta-Jones with her co-star from seven years ago, the effortlessly charming Spanish heart-throb Antonio Banderas.

A cynic might see all this as no more than evidence of the power of cross-marketing by the media conglomerates who run our entertainment industry. Hollywood, after all, has not exactly distinguished itself by the originality of its ideas in recent years, and Zorro seems as good a property as any to turn back to after the multiple flops of ancient Macedonia (Alexander), the Crusades (Kingdom of Heaven), Depression-era boxing (Cinderella Man) and the rest of what has turned out to be a miserably unprofitable year for the big studios.

Certainly, advance reviews of the new Zorro movie suggest it is a money-making enterprise first and foremost - it is louder, more expensive, more action-spectacular than the original, and nowhere near as deft in its tongue-in-cheek explorations of the history of banditry and social upheaval in 19th-century California, which is where the story is set.

It is also tempting to think, though, that Zorro might just be a hero whose time has come, or come back. In the United States - and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the western world - the political class is regarded as unusually corrupted and incompetent, and unequal to the daunting challenges imposed by our distinctly dangerous times. In an age of killer hurricanes and nuclear proliferation and suicide bombings and endless conflict in Iraq, what could be more reassuring than a quietly dignified, seemingly passive nobleman who in fact leads a double life, dons a hero's mask to defend the people whenever necessary and makes a habit of triumphing over his enemies by gouging his trademark Z into their quivering flesh?

If the fantasy is imbued with a certain amount of Hollywood-style bad faith, that in itself may be no less telling a sign of the times. Since his creation 86 years ago, Zorro has always been a bit of a bad-faith hero - a Mexican Robin Hood originally offered up for the entertainment of white Californians who were busy repressing the very Mexicans Zorro defended.

Such hasty rearrangement of the historical furniture remains a feature of the Zorro phenomenon even today. In the latest movie, Zorro and California's Mexican population are seen cheering the advent of Californian statehood in 1850, even though the arrangement worked entirely to the Anglo population's advantage and cut them out of the political power structure for 150 years. But, hey, when we have plenty of swordplay and the spectacle of Zeta-Jones in skimpy lace underwear to contemplate, who's complaining?

Zorro was first dreamed up by a long-forgotten pulp writer by the name of Johnston McCulley, who had his story serialised in a magazine called All-Story Weekly in 1919. Like all pulp writers, McCulley was driven by the need to make money, more than anything, and borrowed heavily from a number of sources to put some rapid flesh on the bones of his basic idea.

The Zorro character was inspired most obviously by a real-life 19th-century outlaw called Joaquin Murrieta, whose gang was responsible for endless cattle-rustling, robberies, kidnappings and murders during the California Gold Rush of the early 1850s. There is scant historical evidence Murrieta was anything other than an opportunist and a criminal, but as early as 1854 he had been turned into a romantic figure and a champion of the people in a best-selling book.

Murrieta quickly became a symbol of Mexican resistance to the influx of Anglo-Americans into California, and equally his apprehension became a priority and a point of pride for the leadership of the young state. After he was captured and killed in an ambush laid by members of a new law enforcement agency called the California Rangers, his head, along with the hand of one of his companions, was pickled in brandy and displayed all over California.

Elements of all this were cleverly woven into the 1998 Zorro movie. McCulley, though, had other sources to draw on, most notably The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy's fantasy of a foppish aristocrat with a double life, which had first appeared in 1905. McCulley moved the action back from the Gold Rush to the time of Mexican independence from Spain, in 1821. And he also shifted locales from northern California to the pueblo of Los Angeles.

In his version, Zorro - the Spanish word for fox -- is the alter ego of the nobleman Don Diego Vega, whose demeanour is so cold and uninspiring that he cannot successfully woo the lovely Senorita Lolita or begin to satisfy the ambitions of his father. His father tells him at one point: "Get life into you! I would you had half the courage and spirit this Señor Zorro, this highwayman, has! He has principles and he fights for them. He aids the helpless and avenges the oppressed. I salute him!"

Zorro, by contrast, is only too happy to draw his sword and call on the services of Tornado, his ultra-intelligent horse. He defends a family in danger from the corrupt Spanish governor, gets the girl against some stiff competition (of course) and, in the book's final pages, reveals his true identity to the astonishment of all.

McCulley's book drew the attention of Douglas Fairbanks Sr, who was the driving force behind the movie version which came out in 1920. Fairbanks and the production team changed the title from McCulley's original, The Curse of Capistrano, to The Mark of Zorro, and introduced many of the elements that were to become part and parcel of the Zorro persona - the Z-shaped swordstrokes, Zorro's habit of slicing candles and leaving them burning, Zorro disguising himself in a priest's outfit, and so on. McCulley's Zorro wore a wide sombrero, in contrast to Fairbanks' small flat-brimmed hat. It was, of course, Fairbanks' choice of headgear that became integrated into the Zorro persona in subsequent versions.

Down the years, new elements were added, or elaborated upon. The 1940 film version, with Tyrone Power, gave Zorro a backstory - how he left California for Spain to be trained in swordsmanship and how, on his return, he had to act effete and passive for his own protection because of political threats to his father, the mayor of Los Angeles.

Some of the variants on Zorro strayed away from Don Diego and focused on children or other successors donning the Zorro mask and continuing his work. A 1974 version starring Alain Delon moved the action to South America but used many of the same familiar tropes. Perhaps the wackiest variant was Zorro, The Gay Blade, a parody made in 1981 with George Hamilton playing the dual roles of Zorro and Zorro's flaming queen of a brother, Bunny Wigglesworth, who has a weakness for colourful outfits instead of plain black and announces, in camp musical style: "His clothes are bold, his mind uncanny, give him your gold or he'll whip your fanny!"

Zorro, meanwhile, enjoyed a little acknowledged secondary career as a key inspiration behind the whole American super-hero phenomenon. Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, was clearly a fan because he has Bruce Wayne's parents go out to see the Fairbanks Mark of Zorro the night they are murdered. Batman wears a mask and cape, just like Zorro, and his Batmobile is kept in the basement just as Tornado is at Zorro's Californian hacienda.

Zorro enjoyed any number of cultural spin-offs before the cultural revival: a play by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, a Russian opera, and a ballet performed in San Francisco.

The main reason the 1998 film worked so well was because the characters were suitably light and frothy, the action sequences were both thrilling and satisfyingly old-fashioned (the fight master used on the film was a veteran who had worked with Errol Flynn), and the three principal actors - Anthony Hopkins as well as Banderas and Zeta-Jones - looked like they had never had so much fun on film.

But the screenwriters also went back to the Murrieta legend, among other sources, and used them to original effect. Banderas' character, in fact, is called Alejandro Murrieta, who takes over the Zorro role from the ageing Don Diego (Hopkins) to avenge his brother Joaquin, whose head has ended up in a pickle jar belonging to their mutual nemesis, the Spanish governor of California.

The new film is nowhere near as subtle or as successful in blending history, legend and entertainment. It is set in the Gold Rush period, but manages to be both off-the-mark historically and rather absurdly anachronistic. There never was a referendum for California statehood in 1850, and the inclusion of one seems designed to score modern-day points about the sudden elevation of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor's office and the present-day preoccupation about vote-stealing in presidential elections.

Likewise, the culminating plotline about a dastardly threat to the very future of the United States plays like a jokey (and not very successful) reference to al-Qa'ida and President Bush's war on terror. The fact that one of the principal villains is French (Rufus Sewell, with a distinctly wobbly Gallic accent) no doubt owes something to all those spats over weapons inspectors and chips being renamed Freedom Fries in certain loopily patriotic quarters.

Zorro, one suspects, may finally have been loaded with just a little too much significance. Given his enduring appeal, however, one also suspects he will live to fight another day.

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