The Mask of Zorro (1998) Retro Review

After composing the score for Titanic, James Horner told Scott Campbell (the director of Goldeneye) that he wanted to work on something completely different. Campbell was making a Zorro picture and Horner was delighted to hear it. Campbell was delighted to have Horner. And then Horner told him he wanted to score all the sword fights using boot heels on floorboards. With occasional strings.

Does that sound crazy? Oh, yes. Does it work? Oh, yes.

Zorro has been with us for almost a century. He was created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley with his pulp story “The Curse of Capistrano.” McCulley went on to write sixty-five more Zorro stories right up until his death and in the meantime Zorro became a darling of Hollywood’s silent era played by its most darling leading man, Douglas Fairbanks. The first Zorro film, adapted from “Capistrano,” was titled The Mark of Zorro and it was a great success. Since then we’ve had numerous Zorro films, comic books, and television shows. He inspired Bob Kane’s Batman to fight crime (though not Chris Nolan’s, and we all remember how that turned out) as well as several masked men throughout the decades. Why do we love him so?

Well Zorro is Spanish for “fox” and he has always triumphed on the strength of his cunning. He is a clever fellow, but what’s more, and what has endeared him to us, is why he fights. He fights for the common man, for the oppressed, the downtrodden. He fights to right wrongs. He stands up for the little guy. By day he is the foppish dandy Don Diego; by night he is the dashing man all dressed in black. He is a skilled horseman, a master of the whip and a wizard with a sword.

After so many decades of doing good, how could The Mask of Zorro possibly meet those expectations? The adverb we want is spectacularly.

Good thing we got it.

With Scott Campbell – fresh from one of the best James Bond films of all time – as director, Steven Spielberg set to produce, James Horner with his crazy boots, legendary sword master Bob Anderson, and a host of great actors, stuntmen and writers, 1998’s Mask of Zorro is not only a beautiful culmination to the Zorro legacy but one of the most stunning action-adventure films of the twentieth century. Shot in a classical romantic style on real Mexican locations, every frame of this feature bespeaks a professionalism and love for its material that captivates, enthralls, and entertains.

It balances a genuine heart with arch drama and laugh out loud moments, structured by a phenomenal production crew but brought to life with an ensemble of actors that are, to the last man and woman, perfectly cast. Antonio Banderas is our new Zorro and he plays off Anthony Hopkins, Zorro senior, with a rough and ready energy. Both share the screen with the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones as well as their dual villains: The elegant and sinister Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) and the psychotic if honorable Captain Harrison Love (Matt Lescher).

The film shows us the twilight of De La Vega’s Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) as he runs Don Rafael out of town but cannot escape the man’s seething hatred. After his wife Esperanza (Julieta Rosen) is killed and his daughter Elena (Zeta-Jones) is taken from him, De La Vega is imprisoned for twenty years. When Don Rafael returns, De La Vega escapes and begins training a young thief, Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas). The man is a bit of a scoundrel but cleans up well. He, too, is seeking revenge on Captain Harrison Love, the man who killed his brother. Now it is true that Murrieta’s brother (Victor Rivers) was killed as an outlaw, but trust me, it’s better to be killed by Capt. Love than to face the alternative: working to death in Raphael Montero’s illegal gold mine. Don Raphael has returned to California to buy it outright from General Santa Ana and a Zorro is needed to save the people once more.

In addition to being a great all-around action piece, Mask is also a revenge picture. A double revenge picture, in fact. There is something about righteous revenge that satisfies something deep inside us, an ethos more savage than justice. That said, both Zorros are just men and their vendettas are bound up with the fate of the Mexican people, and we care about our protagonists because the film takes its time introducing us to them, their enemies, their world. The film is loaded with inventive stunts and spectacle but human element is not neglected. It empowers the action.

Whether it is a passionate dance shared by Alejandro and Elena or a young Zorro sneaking into a garrison to procure his horse Tornado, the action is always in service to the plot, in service to the characters. Young Zorro is not quite Zorro and his misadventure in the garrison is his reckless rite of passage. Alejandro dances with Elena because he is attracted to her, but it is actually a subterfuge to attract the attention of her father; Elena is attracted to Alejandro but the dance reveals her fiery spirit. Speaking on the commentary about reshooting certain scenes to get the balance right, Campbell contrasts this action/story ratio to contemporary works:

“…a lot of the movies I see today, particularly action movies, I don’t understand a word of what’s going on. The action seems entirely random, I don’t relate to the characters at all. I get no feeling from the characters, there’s no interplay in the characters [and it’s] all subservient to the action.”

There is a moment of silence just after young Zorro has lost his horse and come face to face with the angry soldiers of the garrison. Campbell further elaborates on his process:

“…and then you have the action right up to this point and there’s this dead silence. I think it’s very important that action isn’t just random. It’s not a series of events, unrelated – which people tend to do now. It has to have a narrative form, it has to have some kind of development, and if we’d just been relentless and nonstop I think an audience would have switched off and got sick of it.”

Campbell is especially complimentary of Banderas, who would do extended fight sequences take after take, hands bleeding from the swords and missed swipes of the stuntmen. The man was a professional and surely exhausted and yet his exuberance in the role of Alejandro is enthralling. And every sword fight is new, offering twists, never repeating. Every major character was given thorough sword training, for months, just to get the basic moves right, before they ever trained with Bob Anderson, and in addition to being shot without speeding up the camera, the fights are all momentous and push the story onward. (The fight between Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas is an especially fun piece. Campbell calls it foreplay.)

It’s a picture with real class. Stunt riding, explosions, romance, heroes and villains and heads in water jars and hands in wine pitchers, The Mask of Zorro truly has it all. We’ll be lucky to have this much fun in the next one hundred years.

Based on the Zorro character created by Johnston McCulley

The Mask of Zorro (1998)
Directed by Martin Campbell
Tristar Pictures
136 Minutes

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