The Mark of Zorro

“Zorro,” a classic series created by Walt Disney Productions, aired on ABC television network from 1957 until 1959, when a financial quarrel between both corporations led to its premature demise as it had high ratings with its target audience of children.

I had the opportunity to watch a rerun of this series. The first thing to strike me was its theme song, which has versions in multiple languages. The one in English, originally recorded by the Mellomen, is longer than the ones in Spanish. A subsequent English rendition by the Chordettes got a top 20 spot on the Hit Parade. The English lyrics goes as follows: “Out of the night, / when the full moon is bright, / comes the horseman known as Zorro. / This bold renegade / carves a Z with his blade, / a Z that stands for Zorro. / Zorro, Zorro, the fox so cunning and free, / Zorro, Zorro, who makes the sign of the Z. / He is polite, / but the wicked take flight / when they catch the sight / of Zorro. / He’s friend of the weak / and the poor and the meek, / this very unique / señor Zorro.”

Now a brief philosophical digression. Ancient Greek thinker Plato in his book “Republic” made the distinction between diegesis and extradiegesis in narrative in general. In modern times, the analytical framework developed by Mister Plato has being adapted to be used in film theory as well. Within this context, diegetic elements are considered those internal to the characters’ world; extradiegetic are those external to their environment. As Zorro nor any other character cannot hear the sounds of the tune, it’s an extradiegetic device. This song is far from being trivial in the storytelling. Besides its philosophical underpinnings, the importance of the song is that is sets the tone for the action seen in the screen and it gives us a glimpse of Zorro’s personality. We learn, for instance, that he is an evening person, not a morning lark.

Much later I went to see the picture “The Mark of Zorro,” which features Douglas Fairbanks in the leading role as Zorro. There’s no music here as this flick was made in 1920, seven years before the introduction of commercially successful sound films.

Both the ’50s TV series and the ’20s film are based on the novel “The Curse of Capistrano,” subtitled “When Romance and Rapiers Ruled in Old California” and authored by Johnston McCulley (1883-1958) in 1919. Old California refers to California prior to being conquered by the United States from Mexico, as a result of the war that they waged between 1846 and 1848, after which Mexico also lost control of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Nonetheless, both the original picture and the series appear to take place in 1820, before the establishment of Mexican California (1823-1846).

There are some key differences between the movie and the series. In the movie, Zorro’s real name is Don Diego Vega and his father’s is Don Alejandro Vega. In the series, to make them sound more aristocratic, they are changed to Don Diego de la Vega and Don Alejandro de la Vega. Zorro main foes’ names are modified as well. The ’20s Captain Juan Ramon and Sergeant Pedro Gonzales are transformed into Captain Enrique Sanchez and Sergeant Demetrio Lopez almost thirty years later.

Furthermore, the network of villains is expanded to include characters such as Licenciado Piña, Jose Sebastian Vargas (also known as Águila), Juan Greco, Conde Kolinko, Magistrate Carlos Galindo, Andres Felipe Basilio and Corporal Reyes. Each episode of the series is not a self-contained story. Rather, this spreads out in installments of various lengths. The one that was most intriguing to me was the showdown between Zorro and El Águila, two men representing a predatory mammal and a predatory bird.

What makes it so compelling is that it involves factors of mystery and suspense. The Eagle’s true identity is not revealed until deep into the narrative.

The basic structure of both screen versions is that Don Alejandro sends Don Diego to Spain to get an elite education. Unbeknownst to his father, Don Diego enhances this education with fencing training, becoming an expert swashbuckler. Upon his return to California, Don Diego keeps his real persona during the day in order to gather intelligence about the bad guys. Once the sun sets, the masked Zorro takes over, penalizing the evil-doers for their misdeeds. When the swordsman is not busy doing this, he tends to his love interest, named Doña Lolita Pulido in the movie and Doña Ana Maria Verdugo in the series.

About the author: Miguel Balbuena is a writer in the academic, scientific, journalistic and literary fields (in the fiction and non-fiction genres).

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