That bold renegade carves a Z with his blade…
– 'Zorro' theme song, Burns/Foster
Before there was Batman, there was Zorro. In fact, comic creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane were influenced by the masked Californian. Even modern fans know this: in versions of Batman's origin story Bruce Wayne's parents were gunned down right after viewing the 1920 Mark of Zorro with their son. Who was Zorro? What is his origin story? And how did he get to be so popular?
From Pulp to Screen
Johnston McCulley (1883-1958) was a pulp fiction writer in the days when that profession could pay off. Before there was radio, cinema, or television, people liked to read exciting stories and make the sounds and pictures in their minds. Magazines like All-Story Weekly, in which the character of Zorro first appeared, offered a lot of entertainment for 10 cents an issue: half a dozen continuing stories (good for keeping the readers coming back), plus a novelette and assorted complete stories. Oh, and miscellaneous poetry.
The poetry was of this quality:
Last evening, waking from a drowse,
I thought of mellow luscious cheese,
Which made me think of grazing cows...
– 'The Missing First Link' by WE Nesom, All-Story Weekly, 20 December, 1919, p30
(It's a love poem.)
McCulley could do better than that. And he did, under a dozen or more pseudonyms. Pulp writers worked hard. Zorro was by far McCulley's most successful character: a Spanish/Mexican aristocrat (McCulley played mix-and-match with California's colonial history) who pretended to be a bored dandy. By moonlight, though, Zorro (Spanish for 'fox') was a bold highwayman who punished evil and rewarded good. He cut a dashing figure with his black cape, flat hat, and mask. He was an excellent horseman, a superb swordsman, and handy with a whip. Men feared him. Ladies and peasants adored him. And oh, yes, this was basically a 'haircut' (plot theft) of Baroness Orczy's 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, also about a swashbuckling aristocrat.
Zorro stories had lots of action coupled with epic dialogue like this:
"Fight, insulter of girls!" he cried. "Fight, man who tells a falsehood to injure a noble family! Fight, coward and poltroon! Now death stares you in the face, and soon you'll be claimed! Ha! I almost had you then! Fight, cur!"
– 'The Curse of Capistrano'
Zorro was a hit with readers, but he really achieved fame at the 'flickers', as they called the movies of the silent era.
In 1920, the first silent Zorro film appeared, entitled The Mark of Zorro. The film starred Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood's most popular actor. Fairbanks' athleticism and ebullient screen presence helped the California freedom fighter make an indelible mark on cinema. In 1925, Fairbanks starred in another Zorro film, Don Q, Son of Zorro.
Zorro reappeared in the talking film era with 1936's The Bold Caballero starring Robert Livingston. But aficionados of classic cinema will point to the 1940 Tyrone Power film The Mark of Zorro as definitive. The cinema didn't like to let go of Zorro: in the 1930s and 1940s, there were no fewer than four film serials involving the masked hero. Not all were set in colonial California. Sometimes, Zorro's descendants fought in the US Civil War or battled villains in the contemporary West.
When television sets proliferated in the US in the 1950s, the scramble for content led to many series. Between 1957 and 1959, the Disney Corporation aired Zorro, an adventure series that made Guy Williams a household name1. Playing Zorro changed Williams' life. Zorro was so popular in Argentina that Williams was welcomed whenever he visited. In the 1970s, he retired to Buenos Aires.
Zorro was a real moneymaker for Walt Disney, who used the profits to build his theme park in California. In addition to the broadcasting rights, Disney profited from the merchandise madness: children in the US clamoured for Zorro lunch boxes, Zorro swords (with chalk tips for marking that 'Z', hated by mothers), Zorro comics, Zorro Pez dispensers, Zorro collectible cards, and even Zorro hand puppets. There was even a board game, as well as jigsaw puzzles and, of course, costumes.
In the 1950s, US children, both boys and girls, cosplayed as Zorro. This obituary of Guy Williams sums it up:
Zorro isn't really dead, of course, because Mr Williams wasn't Zorro. My brother and I were Zorro. Everyone else on the block was Zorro, too.
- Steven Rubenstein, San Francisco Chronicle, May 1989
Zorro remakes have continued to be popular into the 21st Century. Here are some highlights:
Zorro E I Tre Moschiettiere (Zorro and the Three Musketeers), 1961, Italy. Historically speaking, Zorro is a moveable feast.
Zorro Alla Corte di Spagnia (Zorro in the Court of Spain), 1962, Italy.
Il Sogno di Zorro (Zorr's Dream), 1962, Italy. Sophia Loren was an extra in this movie.
Zorro, Italy, 1975, starring Alain Delon.
The Erotic Adventures of Zorro, US, 1979. An internet commenter called this film 'the Naked Gun of Zorro pictures.'
Zorro, the Gay Blade, US, 1980. George Hamilton reimagines the story as a comedy involving identical twins – Zorro and his gay brother Bunny. Audiences loved it at the time, though modern mileage may vary.
Zorro and Son, television series, 1983. A comedy that ran for a whole five episodes.
Zorro, television series, 1989. This dramatic series was shot in Madrid, Spain, and ran for 88 episodes. The series was so popular with children that Covington, Kentucky, teacher Alma Burnette created a Zorro Teaching Program to boost academic confidence in her students. April 26, 1991 was proclaimed Zorro Day in Kentucky. There were complaints by the organisation United Hispanics of America, angered by what they saw as cultural appropriation. Zorro continues to be popular in Kentucky: as late as 2021, a couple announced their 'Zorro-themed' wedding.
The Mask of Zorro, US, 1998, starring Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, and Catherine Zeta Jones. The casting of Antonio Banderas finally made Zorro a Hispanic story. Johnston McCulley would probably have been pleased.
Zorro the Fox
It is easy to see why the Zorro story has had such lasting popularity. Zorro takes risks, though prudently, in disguise. Zorro rights wrongs and defends the vulnerable. Above all, Zorro does it with style.
Would you like to see a Zorro film? See Episode 1 on Youtube or in the embedded link to watch the beginning of the cinema serial Zorro's Fighting Legion, complete with rousing singing.