When I was a kid, all the major television networks were scheduling shows with a Western motif in prime time every night of the week. I have pretty vivid memories of some of them and can still sing most of the theme songs. One of the shows I remember from this period is Zorro. Of course my childhood memories are not as accurate as one might like, so a trip to my favorite on-line television and movie database must help me with the details. Looks like the show, a Disney production, aired on ABC from 1957-1959, in 82 half-hour episodes. My adult sensibilities are offended by the fact that all the main characters (with Hispanic names) are played by actors with Anglo names (well, at least one of them may have been a Mexican with an Anglicized stage name), but I have seen enough re-runs of other Westerns from that period to know that the practice was common.
My childhood recollections of Zorro led me to believe that his character was based on a real hero of the Old West, someone like Wyatt Earp or Pancho Villa. Alas, I was wrong about that. Zorro is about as real as that other famous caped crusader Batman. He certainly doesn’t show up in Eric Hobsbawm’s thought-provoking analysis of social banditry (Bandits, The New Press, 2000). According to Zorro Unmasked: The Official History (Sandra Curtis, Hyperion Press, 1998), Johnston McCulley’s first story about Zorro (‘The Curse of Capistrano’) appeared in pulp magazine format in 1919. The stories continued to appear, primarily in similar publication venues, until the early 1950s. The names of Zorro and his regular companions, as well as the basic aspects of the story, are the property of Zorro Productions, Inc., located in Berkeley, California.
With permission of Zorro Productions, Isabel Allende has given us a possible backstory for this fascinating character and his alter ego Diego de la Vega. The story follows a chronological order, starting in 1790 with the arrival of Captain Alejandro de la Vega at the San Gabriel Mission to help the padre and his flock of converts fight off the hostile advances of a band of rebel Shoshones led by Chief Gray Wolf. This event leads – a few years and several events later – to the birth of Diego de la Vega. Allende devotes about the first hundred pages to tales about Diego’s childhood, which the unnamed narrator (whose identity is ultimately revealed) knows only by hearsay.
As he enters adolescence, Diego heads off to Spain in the company of his faithful childhood companion Bernardo. There Diego learns how to fence from a master, practices acrobatics with tribe of Gypsies and has an affair with one of the Gypsy women, engages in a duel with pistols, joins a secret society and takes the code name Zorro (which means “fox” in Spanish), experiments with the black mask and cape routine, and generally gets into interesting and occasionally pretty dangerous situations from which he escapes. After several adventures involving travel over land and sea and an extended encounter with the famous pirate Jean Lafitte, Diego returns to his native California and starts the whole Zorro legend there.
Generally speaking, Zorro is entertaining and readable. Chilean Allende writes in Spanish, so this edition is a translation. A net search on the translator, Margaret Sayers Peden, tells me that she makes her living translating Spanish texts into English, and has done this work for most of Allende’s earlier writings, so I am confident that she knows what she is doing. Thus (alas!) I must blame Allende for the occasional turgidity of the prose, so at odds with the story. In part this is a matter of very long paragraphs (covering a page or more) that seem to wander around a lot. Allende has provided considerable rich detail (some might call it excessive) on topics that are evidently of interest to her, such as the culture of the Spanish Gypsies, the political situation in Spain during the early years of the nineteenth century and the near utopian community Lafitte founded on Grand Island, near New Orleans.
While I was writing this review, I also watched the film The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell, director, 1998), starring Antonio Banderas in the title role. Well, that’s not entirely true. In this rendition, the aristocratic Diego is an older man (played somewhat improbably by the very British Anthony Hopkins) who passes the Zorro identity on to the younger — and considerably less refined — Alejandro Murrieta. In this version, there is a luscious female lead (Catherine Zeta-Jones) but no faithful sidekick. The whole story takes place in California, and there are plenty of sword fights and lots of acrobatics (swoopings from chandeliers and balconies and some really serious horse tricks are the specialties in this rendition). These Zorros (older and younger) seem to be more committed to larger social justice issues than the Diego/Zorro character in Allende’s novel, who undertakes most of his capers to rescue friends and family members.
I referred earlier in this review to Batman. As a dedicated Batman fan, I feel compelled to mention just a few of the very striking similarities between Batman and the ideal typical Zorro. The most immediately obvious similarity is the one to which I already alluded: both of these characters wear black masks and capes and engage in vigilante behavior under cover of darkness. They both use interesting weapons (those lovely throwing knives and the fencing sword, respectively) and implements that aid them in appearing to fly (Batman has his cables and hooks, the movie Zorro his long black whip). Batman’s alter ego is Bruce Wayne, a wealthy scion who cultivates a playboy/altruist personality as a way of keeping the curious at bay. Don Diego de la Vega is the son of an aristocratic landowner with considerable political power who lets people think he is sickly and a bit frivolous. Both of these heroes have nice big caves under their houses where they hide the evidence of their secret identities, including the Batmobile and the black horse Tornado. Both of their houses feature secret entrances to the caves. Which came first? Well, in terms of initial appearances, Zorro has Batman beat by twenty years. But once they were both on the popular culture scene, who can say which one of them influenced the other? Too bad Zorro can’t make a cameo appearance on The Justice League!