Dynamite Character Profiles: Zorro
Zorro (originally called Señor Zorro) is a fictional character created in 1919 by pulp writer Johnston McCulley. He has been featured in several books, films, television series, and other media.
Zorro (Spanish for fox) is the secret identity of Don Diego de la Vega (originally Don Diego Vega), a nobleman and master swordsman living in the Spanish colonial era of California. The character has undergone changes through the years, but the typical image of him is a black-clad masked outlaw who defends the people of the land against tyrannical officials and other villains. Not only is he much too cunning and foxlike for the bumbling authorities to catch, but he delights in publicly humiliating those same foes.
The character’s visual motif is typically a black costume with a flowing Spanish cape, a flat-brimmed Andalusian-style hat, and a black cowl mask that covers the top of the head from eye level upwards. In his first appearance, he wears a cloak instead of a cape, a black mask covering his whole face with slits for eyes, and a sombrero.
His favored weapon is a rapier which he often uses to leave his distinctive mark, a Z made with three quick cuts. He also uses a bullwhip, rather like the later Indiana Jones. In his debut, he uses a pistol.
The fox is never depicted as Zorro’s emblem, but as a metaphor for the character’s wiliness (“Zorro, ‘the Fox’, so cunning and free…” from the Disney television show theme).
His “heroic pose” consists of rearing on his horse, sword raised high (the logo of Zorro Productions, Inc.).
Zorro (often called Señor or El Zorro in early stories) debuted in McCulley’s 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano, serialized in five parts in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. At the denouement, Zorro’s true identity is revealed to all.
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, on their honeymoon, selected the story as the inaugural picture for their new studio, United Artists, beginning the character’s cinematic tradition. The story was adapted as The Mark of Zorro in 1920, which was a success. McCulley’s story was re-released by the publisher Grosset and Dunlap under the same title to tie in with the film.
Due to public demand fueled by the film, McCulley wrote over 60 additional Zorro stories starting in 1922. The last, The Mask of Zorro (not to be confused with the 1998 film), was published posthumously in 1959. These stories ignore Zorro’s revealing his identity to everyone. The black costume that modern audiences associate with the character stem from Fairbanks’ smash hit movie rather than McCulley’s original story, and McCulley’s subsequent Zorro adventures copied Fairbanks’s Zorro rather than the other way around. McCulley died in 1958, just as the Disney-produced Zorro television show was becoming phenomenally successful.
In The Curse of Capistrano Don Diego Vega becomes Señor Zorro in the pueblo of Los Angeles in California “to avenge the helpless, to punish cruel politicians,” and “to aid the oppressed.” He is the title character, as he is dubbed the “curse of Capistrano.”
The story involves him romancing Lolita Pulido, an impoverished noblewoman. While Lolita is unimpressed with Diego, who pretends to be a passionless fop, she is attracted to the dashing Zorro. His rival and antagonist is Captain Ramon. Other characters include Sgt. Pedro Gonzales, Zorro’s enemy and Diego’s friend; Zorro’s deaf and mute servant Bernardo; his ally Fray (Friar) Felipe; his father Don Alejandro Vega, and a group of noblemen (caballeros) who at first hunt him but are won over to his cause.
In later stories McCulley introduces characters such as pirates and Native Americans, some of both who know Zorro’s identity.
In McCulley’s later stories, Diego’s surname became de la Vega. In fact, the writer was wildly inconsistent. The first magazine serial ended with the villain dead and Diego publicly exposed as Zorro, but in the sequel the antagonist was alive, and the next entry had the double identity still secret.
Several Zorro productions have expanded on the character’s exploits
Douglas Fairbanks also starred in a 1925 sequel to his film titled Don Q, Son of Zorro, playing Don Diego’s grown-up son, Don Cesar, as well as reprising his role as Don Diego.
Zorro Rides Again (1937), starring John Carroll, features a modernized Zorro named James Vega, the great-grandson of Diego.
Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939) starred Reed Hadley as Don Diego de la Vega/Zorro in a storyline set shortly after Mexican independence.
George Turner stars in Son of Zorro (1947) as Diego’s descendant Jeff Stewart, who operates as Zorro after the American Civil War.
Another incarnation of Zorro appears in Ghost of Zorro (1949). Ken Mason (Clayton Moore, best known for depicting the Lone Ranger) is Diego Vega’s grandson.
Alain Delon stars as Diego in Zorro (1975), an Italian-French collaboration. In this version, Diego is impersonating a newly-appointed governor in South America who opposes tyranny and oppression in his Zorro guise.
In the comedy Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981), Don Diego passes the mantle of Zorro to his son, also named Diego (George Hamilton). But when Diego the younger breaks his leg, his flamboyantly gay brother Ramon a.k.a. Bunny Wigglesworth (also played by Hamilton) takes over. Bunny’s Zorro eschews the traditional black garb for more colorful outfits.
In The Mask of Zorro (1998), a younger protagonist, Alejandro Murrieta (fictional brother of Joaquin Murrieta), becomes Diego’s successor. Alejandro returns in the 2005 sequel The Legend of Zorro. In his second appearance, he is called Don Alejandro de la Vega. He is played by Antonio Banderas.
The critically acclaimed The Mask of Zorro gives one possibility of Don Diego de la Vega’s (Anthony Hopkins) end. In 1821, Governor Rafael Montero finally discovers Zorro’s secret identity. The two enemies fight in Diego’s mansion, accidentally killing his wife, Esperanza. Diego is captured and imprisoned and his infant daughter Elena brought up by Montero as his own daughter. Twenty years later, Diego escapes from prison with the intention of taking revenge on Montero and telling Elena her true origin. He also trains Alejandro Murrieta as a new Zorro. By the film’s end, both Montero and Diego die. The new Zorro and Elena get married; their son Joaquín is born by the end of the film and returns in The Legend of Zorro.
The animated series Zorro: Generation Z features a descendant and namesake of Diego de la Vega who takes up the mantle in the future.
In The Curse of Capistrano McCulley describes Diego as “unlike the other full-blooded youths of times”; though proud as befitting his class (and seemingly uncaring about the lower classes), he shuns action, rarely wearing his sword except for fashion, and is indifferent to romance with women. This is of course a sham.
The first remake (1940) of The Mark of Zorro, starring Tyrone Power as Diego, more or less adopts the book version, where he masquerades at night as a brilliant swordsman but pretends by day to be a decadent, foppish, and self-centered human being – until the staged final fight with Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone); critics single out the swordfight as arguably the most realistic and thrilling on film.
However, Walt Disney’s television operation clearly decided that, while such an arrogant and condescending character may work in print and even in a one-shot movie, viewers would quickly tire of him on a weekly show. So in Disney’s Zorro (1957-59), Diego instead masquerades as a passionate and compassionate crusader for justice-but as “the most inept swordsman in all of California.” In this show, everyone knows Diego would love to do what Zorro does, but thinks he does not have the skill.
Skills and resources
Zorro is an agile athlete and acrobat, using his bullwhip as a gymnastic accoutrement to swing through gaps between city roofs, and is very capable of landing from great heights and taking a fall. Although he is a master swordsman and marksman, he has more than once demonstrated his more than able prowess in unarmed combat, against multiple opponents.
His calculating and precise dexterity as a tactician has enabled him to use his two main weapons, his sword and bullwhip, as an extension of his very deft hand. He never uses brute strength, more his fox-like sly mind and well-practiced technique to outmatch an opponent.
Some versions of Zorro have a medium-sized dagger tucked in his left boot for emergencies. He has used his cape as a blind, a trip-mat-and when used effectively-a disarming tool. Zorro’s boots are also sometimes weighted, as is his hat, which he has thrown, Frisbee-like, as an efficiently substantial warning to enemies. Usually he uses psychological mockery to make his opponents too angry to be coordinated in combat.
Zorro is also a skilled horseman. The name of his horse has varied through the years. In The Curse of Capistrano it was unnamed. Later versions named the horse Tornado/Toronado, or Tempest.
McCulley’s concept of a band of men helping Zorro is often absent from other versions of the character. An exception is Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939), starring Reed Hadley as Diego.
In Disney’s Zorro television series, Diego’s servant Bernardo pretends to be deaf as well as mute and serves as Zorro’s spy. He is also a capable and invaluable helper for Zorro and Diego, even wearing the mask himself occasionally to reinforce his master’s charade. The character was both deaf and mute in the original McCulley stories.
Zorro bears some similarities to historical Portugese bandits. He is often associated with Joaquin Murrieta, the “Mexican and/or Chilean Robin Hood”, whose life was fictionalized in an 1854 book by John Rollin Ridge, and in the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro, where Murrieta’s (fictional) brother succeeds Diego as Zorro. Other possible inspirations for the character include Robin Hood himself, Reynard the Fox, Salomon Pico, Tiburcio Vasquez, William Lamport (an Irish soldier living in Mexico in the 17th century, whose life was fictionalized by Vicente Riva Palacio and whose biography “The Irish Zorro” was published in 2004) and Yokuts Indian Estanislao, who led a revolt against the Mission San Jose in 1827.
Although not completely original in its concept and recognizing influences from previous publications like the Spring Heeled Jack adventures, notably including motifs such as the secret subterranean lair and the habit of marking the bodies of his enemies with a signature letter, Zorro is one of the earliest precursors of the superhero of American comic books, being an independently wealthy person who has a secret identity (as with Spring Heeled Jack and The Scarlet Pimpernel) which he defends by wearing a mask, and who accomplishes good for the people with his superior fighting abilities and resourcefulness.
Zorro the “Fox” is in this respect similar to the American historical figure Francis Marion, “The Swamp Fox”, who was also the subject of a Disney television series in the 1950s. Disney also highlighted Zorro’s connection with the Robin Hood tale in its 1973 animated interpretation, Robin Hood, wherein the lead character is drawn as an anthropomorphized fox.
One source of inspiration for The Mask of Zorro is probably Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, where a wronged hero returns as an independently wealthy man, and under an assumed elegant persona wreaks vengeance on those who betrayed him, and does secret good for those who tried to help him in earlier days (all somewhat applicable to Alejandro Murrieta). Zorro’s pretense of being a cowardly fop uninterested in the cause is probably inspired by the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Zorro in turn became a key inspiration for the characters The Phantom, The Lone Ranger, Batman, the Green Arrow, Doc Savage, and other non-superpower-endowed pulp fiction and comic-strip action heroes.
The Mark of Zorro was one of many works that inspired comic book artist Bob Kane when he created the Batman character in 1939. This inspiration has been worked into the comics themselves, establishing that The Mark of Zorro was the film which the young Bruce Wayne watched with his parents at the cinema the night he witnessed their murders. Zorro has been portrayed as Bruce’s childhood hero and an influence on his Batman persona, from the masked hero in the dark costume to making his public persona of Bruce Wayne seem foolish to deflect suspicion. Zorro keeps his horse in the basement of his house, and Batman keeps his Batmobile in a similar hideout, the Batcave.
Zorro was also the inspiration of the remarkably similar characters El Coyote and El Aguila.
In horror fiction, Kim Newman’s short story “Out In The Night, When The Full Moon Is Bright…” reinterprets Zorro as a near-immortal Mexican werewolf fighting against evil, injustice and oppression from colonial Mexico to the ghettos of a near-future Los Angeles.
In the Dreamworks film Shrek 2, a new feline character is added. His name is Puss in Boots who shares a very large resemblance to Zorro and is also voiced by Antonio Banderas, the then-latest actor to play as Zorro. Like Zorro, Puss has a trademark signature which he creates a “P” with three quick slashes with his rapier very similar to Zorro himself.