Zorro's long history -- ''The Mask of Zorro,'' the 1920 and 1940 versions of ''The Mark of Zorro,'' and 1960s ''The Sign of Zorro''

The Mark of Zorro (Movie - 1920)

Zorro’s long history

Can a hero who dates back to the silent era hold his own in the Age of Bruckheimer? For those speed-metal minds who want to taste full-bodied romance and revenge, The Mask of Zorro packs more movie into its spacious 137 minutes than any event pic of recent memory. Reviving the saga of Spanish California’s people’s bandit, this Zorro is a refreshing throwback that’s also thoroughly modern. And not for nothing is Steven Spielberg one of the film’s executive producers. It rollicks with an exuberance we’ve rarely seen since Indiana Jones last careened across the screen.

Yet it’s the oldfangled attention to plot and character that drives this fortified melodrama, in which Anthony Hopkins’ aging Don Diego, a.k.a. Zorro, escapes from his 20-year imprisonment to avenge the death of his wife and find his long-lost daughter — aided by a handpicked successor (Antonio Banderas) who’s pursuing his own vendetta against the local despots. But the filmmakers don’t just give us another remake of a story told right the first — and second — time. They’ve honored the memory of Zorros past by making this very movie-conscious movie a sort of meta-sequel. Beyond Robin Hood it goes as the elder Zorro’s incarceration and escape evoke The Count of Monte Cristo; his love for his child harks to Les Misérables; his subterranean lair echoes the Batcave (though in truth it was Zorro who inspired that caped crusader); and the two Zorros’ often comic master-student relationship recalls Merlin and young Arthur or, if you prefer, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker.

But in the end, this Zorro triumphs because it stays true to the pulp serial that inspired Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 silent The Mark of Zorro. An outlaw whose mocking raids belie a rebel fervor to overthrow the ruling class, Fairbanks’ Zorro will forever be the standard. Leaping over rooftops and flying through windows, he set the bar exhilaratingly high.

In Rouben Mamoulian’s 1940 remake The Mark of Zorro, Tyrone Power didn’t even try to match Fair-banks’ acrobatics. Instead, he elaborated on Zorro’s alter ego — the deceptively indolent aristocrat Don Diego — creating a fop whose hankie waving is a comic contrast to Zorro’s swordsmanship. Guy Williams was a less effete but no less docile Diego in 1960’s The Sign of Zorro (cobbled together from the Disney syndicated TV series). But his Zorro was status quo, dispatching the governor’s goons with grinning ease.

The devilish Banderas, the first Latin actor to play the role, blends all of the above in his Zorro, rising to chandelier-swinging heights Fairbanks might envy, and outclassing all Zorros with his ravishing leading lady, Catherine Zeta Jones, who plays Hopkins’ daughter. Their smoldering chemistry flares in a lusty tango scene and an even sexier sword fight. Before they’ve even kissed, these two are 1998’s hottest screen couple.

If Banderas is the vital heart of this Zorro, Hopkins is its noble soul. As a warrior in his twilight, Hopkins’ Zorro takes his place among other swashbuckling heroes going out in a blaze of glory, from Sean Connery’s Robin Hood in the autumnal Robin and Marian to Gabriel Byrne’s D’Artagnan in The Man in the Iron Mask.

Between them, Banderas and Hopkins restore heroic stature to an image that had been trashed by such pretenders as Alain Delon in the spaghetti-Westernish Zorro (1974) and George Hamilton in the silly spoof Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981). But also give credit to director Martin Campbell, who, as he did for James Bond in Goldeneye, rejuvenates Zorro largely by letting him get back to his old self.

The Mask A-
The Mark (1920) A
The Mark (1940) B+
The Sign B-

The Mark of Zorro (Movie - 1920)
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