Zorro - The Legend Through The Years

   Development of the Zorro Legend:

   1919 through 1993

The Zorro legend has changed throughout the years with each new version affecting the versions that come later.  This discussion will focus primarily on the development of the legend throughout the following versions of Zorro and how each has affected later versions.

  • The Curse of Capistrano - 1919
  • The Mark of Zorro - 1920
  • Zorro's Fighting Legion - 1939
  • The Mark of Zorro - 1940
  • Walt Disney's Zorro - 1957 to 1959
  • Zorro and Son - 1983
  • The New World Zorro - 1990 to 1993

The Mask of Zorro will not be included in the discussion as it took the legend in a completely different direction, and so far it is unclear how it will affect future versions of Zorro.

In the original story, The Curse of Capistrano, Zorro is referred as the Curse of Capistrano as often as he is referred to as Zorro.  The name Zorro is not of as much importance as it becomes in later versions.

The reader is given none of the particulars on where Don Diego hides his Zorro disguise or his horse.  In fact, the reader does not know for certain that Don Diego is Zorro until the end of the second to the last chapter of the story so it is not surprising that specific information is not given.  After Zorro has unmasked himself, Don Diego explains to everyone how and why he became Zorro.

"It began ten years ago, when I was but a lad of fifteen," he said.  "I heard tales of persecution.  I saw my friends, the frailes, annoyed and robbed.  I saw soldiers beat an old native who was my friend.  And then I determined to play this game.

"It would be a difficult game to play, I knew.  So I pretended to have small interest in life, so that men never would connect my name with that of the highwayman I expected to become.  In secret, I practiced horsemanship and learned how to handle a blade . . . One half of me was the languid Don Diego you all knew, and the other half was the Curse of Capistrano I hoped one day to be.  And then the time came, and my work began.

"It is a peculiar thing to explain, señores.  The moment I donned cloak and mask, the Don Diego part of me fell away.  My shoulders straightened, new blood seemed to course through my veins, my voice grew strong and firm, fire came to me!  And the moment I removed cloak and mask I was the languid Don Diego again.  Is it not a peculiar thing?"

Don Diego also explains that he was friends with Sgt. Gonzales so that he would gain information on where the soldiers were planning to search for Zorro.  Diego's friendship with the sergeant is maintained in both the Walt Disney and New World Zorro series.  One last item of importance is that in the original story Zorro has a band of caballeros who help him fight against injustice.  The band of caballeros is ignored in all versions of Zorro except Zorro's Fighting Legion, in which it is of primary importance to the plot.

The first dramatized interpretation comes from Douglas Fairbanks.  There is some disagreement about how Fairbanks becomes aware of The Curse of Capistrano, but nevertheless he does become aware of McCulley's story and immediately decides to film it.  The movie is released in 1920 and becomes an instant hit.  The movie follows the plot of the original story, but due to time constraints does condense it.

Fairbanks embellishes McCulley's creation, bringing life to it.  Fairbanks shows the viewer McCulley's languid Don Diego by drooping his shoulders and brings humor to the character by having Don Diego perform tricks with his handkerchief, a plot device not present in the original story.  Fairbanks plays Zorro as outrageously playful and daring, much more so than what is indicated in the original story.  Fairbanks has Zorro perform acrobatic stunts, making Zorro's fights seem quite exciting.  Fairbanks creates a plot device used in many versions of Zorro, that of hiding underneath a priest's robes.  Don Diego's servant, Bernardo, is both deaf and mute and serves little purpose in either the original story or the 1920 film.  Bernardo is omitted from all versions of Zorro during the 1930s and 1940s.

The next significant entry in Zorro's history is the 1939 movie serial, Zorro's Fighting Legion.  Reed Hadley portrays a very confident and decisive Zorro who faces some of the most difficult predicaments that any Zorro ever faces.  Many of the action sequences and stunts which are associated with the Zorro legend are first performed by Hadley's Zorro in this serial.  Zorro is seen leaping off of a wall onto the back of his horse; Zorro cuts a man's suspenders so that his pants fall down; Zorro jumps across a deep ravine on his horse; Zorro swings from a chandelier; and Zorro is trapped on a suspension bridge when the ropes holding it are cut.  Zorro also once again has a band of caballeros assisting him, just like in the original story and 1920 film.

In 1940, Tyrone Power dons the mask of Zorro.  The most significant change is that the story now opens with Don Diego at military school in Madrid.  He receives a letter from his father requesting that he return home immediately.  Don Diego returns to California to discover that a cruel alcalde now reigns supreme and that the people are oppressed.  As Diego discovers the grim situation, he begins to fiddle with his handkerchief and speak in a more delicate fashion.  Of note is that this film expands upon the original idea of Zorro hiding in a priest's robes by having Zorro carry on a conversation with his love interest Lolita while pretending to be a priest.

The 1957 to 1959 Walt Disney television series lengthens Don Diego's last name from 'Vega' to 'de la Vega.'  Disney's Zorro begins very much like the 1940 film, with Diego on a ship returning to California from Spain.  Diego has been in Spain for three years and is returning home after receiving a letter from his father requesting him to return home from Spain.  Diego is puzzled as to why he must return until he speaks with the ship's captain, who informs Diego of the political problems in California.  While still onboard ship, Diego decides that he will fight tyranny and oppression and that the best way for him to do this is with cunning.  He decides to pretend to be a man of books, little interested in anything else.

Diego's manservant, Bernardo, is now back after being absent for 22 years from all dramatized versions of Zorro.  Unlike in the original story and 1920 film, Bernardo is now only mute and not deaf.  This proves to be a great benefit as Bernardo pretends to be both deaf and mute.  Bernardo plays a more active role in assisting Don Diego as he is able to eavesdrop on important conversations since everyone thinks he cannot hear what is being said.

For the first time in any version of Zorro, Don Diego is a poor fencer.  Diego never tells anybody about the fencing medals and trophies he earned while at school in Madrid.  Whenever Diego is forced to fence, he fences as awkwardly as possible.  Another change is that Disney's Zorro also makes it clear that Zorro fights those people who are breaking the law rather than the law itself; he does not make his own decisions about whether the law itself is just or unjust.

Zorro and Son is the sequel to the Disney television series.  While very short-lived, it does have an important impact on the later New World Zorro series.  Don Diego's son, Don Carlos, works on experiments in Zorro's secret cave.  He has a small laboratory set up.  This idea is greatly expanded in the New World Zorro series to become a full-fledged scientific laboratory.  The New World Zorro is the first and so far only version of Zorro to have such an advanced scientific laboratory in Zorro's secret cave.

The New World Zorro also expands more on the bookish side of Don Diego.  The significant difference is that Don Diego's bookish nature is not an act; Don Diego genuinely loves to read, write poetry, paint, play the piano, and conduct scientific experiments.  Diego's Zorro persona is a completely different side to his character.  Neither persona is an act, which gives Don Diego a very complex and multifaceted personality.  Another change is that both Don Diego and Zorro are shown to be very sensitive.  Zorro is completely against killing for any reason and will do anything to avoid killing someone in a fight.

Like in the Disney series, Don Diego's last name is de la Vega and he is an inept swordsman who fences poorly whenever he must fence.  Diego becomes Zorro when he arrives home from Spain after attending school in Madrid for nearly four years.  What is different is that Diego learns the reason why his father is sending for him while he is still at school in Madrid.  Another difference is that the servant Bernardo becomes a boy named Felipe.  Like Bernardo, Felipe is mute but not deaf and helps Don Diego by eavesdropping on conversations.  While Felipe is considered a servant by most people in the pueblo, Diego and Felipe have more of a father-son relationship.

In conclusion, Zorro has evolved over the years, but the premise has changed very little from what it was in Johnston McCulley's original story.  Don Diego has always befriended a boastful sergeant in order to gain information and pretended to be an inactive gentleman who has no wish to become involved in local politics.  Don Diego protects Zorro's identity at all cost which means he cannot marry, much to his father's displeasure.  As Zorro, Don Diego fights against what is unjust and cruel and is a protector of his people, especially the lower classes.  Because of his sacrifices, Don Diego, known better as Zorro, is a hero and a legend who will be remembered forever.

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