The Mark of Zorro
by Johnston McCulley

Review by
William H. Stoddard
All-Story Weekly, 9 August 1919 - 6 September 1919
as The Curse of Capistrano

Grosset & Dunlap: New York, 1924

300 pages

April 2005


Johnston McCulley's novel The Mark of Zorro originally was published in 1919 in All-Story Weekly (before its merge with Argosy) as The Curse of Capistrano. This story was quickly made into a silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr., under the title The Mark of Zorro. Up to that time Fairbanks had played comedic roles; this story gave him the chance to break out into action / adventure in the role of Señor Zorro, while the role of Zorro's unmanly alter ego Don Diego Vega offered an element of comedy to his established fans. The combination worked better than Fairbanks could have hoped; the masked swashbuckler remained popular for the rest of the 20th Century, played by a series of later actors from Tyrone Power to Anthony Hopkins, long after most people had forgotten who first invented him.

However, the original novel can still be found, under its book title The Mark of Zorro. It's still entertaining to read, as well as being of historical interest. Johnston McCulley shifts between action / adventure and comedy with surprising grace. And his treatment of the action is more realistic than I anticipated. Zorro is cautious about facing multiple foes; in mounted combat he maneuvers so that only one for at a time can strike at him, and at other times he uses a pistol to keep back a roomful of adversaries so that he can engage his primary foe one on one. McCulley even goes so far as to describe his being hampered by the need to keep both sword and pistol ready. Zorro's fencing style, with an erect stance and alertness to his enemies' moves, isn't much like the acrobatic combat of many films, but it suggests that McCulley had read about classic Spanish fencing.

The other historical details are sometimes less careful, though. At one point Zorro rides through the shadow of a eucalyptus forest — in Spanish California, decades before the railroads that brought in eucalyptus from Australia! Much of the action takes place at the presidio of Reina de los Angeles — but there never was a presidio there; California's four presidios were at San Francisco, Monterey (the capital), Santa Barbara, and San Diego. The treatment of distance, too, seems fairly casual; Zorro rides between Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and San Juan Capistrano as if the distance were only a few miles. Effectively all the locations in the story are alternate stage sets, no farther apart than a quick change of scene.

In fact, everything about The Mark of Zorro is theatrical, in both a good and a bad sense. The characters are mostly stock figures, whose motives are dictated by their social roles: gentlemen are chivalrous, friars are pious and devoted to the welfare of the Indians, and the sergeant who appears in the first chapter is a classic miles gloriosus or boastful soldier. The central character's double identity lets him be theatrical in both roles: exaggeratedly daring and tricky as Señor Zorro and exaggeratedly effete and naive as Don Diego Vega. The story ends with a climactic unmasking scene of the kind Northrop Frye (in The Anatomy of Criticism) finds definitive of comedy.

Dual identities of this sort are now standard in superhero comics, and have been since the original publication of Superman and Batman, about twenty years after Zorro's first appearance. But most such comics reduce them to a formulaic cliché. McCulley's treatment is actually more insightful; in effect, Zorro defines his dual role as a form of political theater, designed not merely to protect his family and friends but to call attention to the abuses he combats and to mobilize support for his cause. And his discussion of the experience of playing a dual role, in which putting on the mask of Zorro liberated him to be his true, fully capable self — and to court the woman he loved — didn't find imitators in the comics until the early issues of The Amazing Spider-Man showed the shy nerd Peter Parker turning into a wisecracking extrovert when he put on his spider mask.

It's also worth noting that Zorro's role as an opponent of the ruling regime solves one of the recurring narrative problems of the superhero genre. Standard superheroes, from Batman to Buffy, go out on patrol, looking for criminals or other predators. This is what police officers do; but realistic police work is largely dull routine. Locations such as Gotham City and Sunnydale seem to be incredibly target-rich environments, worse than the average Balkan or Near Eastern war zone in the real world; the fact that anyone stays there is hard to explain. Other superheroes' foes obligingly decide that they have to start by getting rid of the hero before carrying out their master plans. But Zorro isn't fighting criminals; he's fighting a government, which is a much easier target to locate. So was his predecessor, the Scarlet Pimpernel, who had all the elements of the superheroic formula except the costume. The assimilation of the masked adventurer formula to America ideas about respect for the law made it much less believable.

The romantic subplot, with both of the hero's identities courting the same woman, has also found many imitators. But McCulley does a better job than most of them. His contrast between Diego Vega, seeking a wife out of obligation and having no patience for romantic wooing, and Zorro, filled with masculine passion, is as vivid as that between the contemptible Clark Kent and the godlike and indifferent Superman, and rather more fun. And the heroine both identities are pursuing, Lolita Pulido, is not passively dependent on the hero; she's able to contrive her own escape from a group of soldiers and then outride them as they pursue her. She appears as someone a heroic adventurer might find appealing — even if, after the novel's end, he gives up his life of adventure, his cause accomplished.

The Mark of Zorro was certainly a novel of its time, and one written for entertainment. But, having read it, I can see why its hero survived, as so many adventure heroes of the time did not, and why Douglas Fairbanks, looking to break out of his confinement to comedic roles, pitched this story to his studio. (The comedic figure cut by Diego Vega, as the seemingly foppish aristocrat, probably made the role seem more suitable to him.) Zorro the masked outlaw defying an oppressive political regime is still an appealing figure now.


© 2005 William H. Stoddard

More history of Zorro:

Johnston McCulley and the Zorro series

Zorro's evolution through the media

Walt Disney's television Zorro

W. H. Stoddard's
Why Superheroes Wear Capes

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