Opposition to political oppression is often expressed through banditry when legitimate dissent or organized rebellion isn't possible. Through these processes, outlaws can become popular heroes, and their exploits mythologized for succeeding generations.
Since the beginning of recorded history, popular culture has celebrated these archetypes. Robin Hood, who stole from the conquering Normans to help the downtrodden Saxons, is perhaps the most famous example.
In 1919, police reporter Johnston McCulley created the pulp-fiction character of Zorro in the magazine serial, “The Curse of Capistrano,” which was published in the All-Story weekly. The action was set in the early 19th century in Alta California which was at that time a Spanish colony. In imagining his hero, McCulley combined fictional characters like Robin Hood and the Scarlett Pimpernel with real-life Old West persons like Joaquin Murrieta, Jose Maria Avila, and Salomon Simeon Pico.
Zorro had two identities. Most of the time he was the wealthy nobleman, Don Diego de la Vega. But when the authorities behaved cruelly towards the peasants, he put on a mask and became a swashbuckling swordsman in black who defended the poor and fought the oppressor, leaving his famous mark, or Z, after each adventure.
The year after the publication of McCulley's serial, Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon with the silent classic, The Mark of Zorro, which featured Douglas Fairbanks performing some mind-boggling stunts with swords and horses. Since then there have been more than 50 movies and a TV series about the masked avenger, starring everyone from Tyrone Power to Guy Williams and George Hamilton.
He put on a mask and became a swash-buckling swordsman in black who defended the poor and fought the oppressor.
The current version, The Mask of Zorro, is the first to cast a Latino in the lead. Director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye) and screenwriters John Eskow, Ted Elliott, Terry Rosie, and Randall Johnson have invented additional changes to the traditional narrative to make the characters more sympathetic to contemporary audiences.
As in the earlier prototypes, the aristocratic Don Diego (Anthony Hopkins) becomes Zorro whenever the haughty Spanish governor, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), takes advantage of his people. It's 1821, and the Spanish are turning over the colony to the Mexican government. The governor is scheduled to return to Europe but can't resist beating up on the poor one last time.
“Today is Zorro's last ride,” Don Diego tells his wife and proceeds to rescue three peasants from the gallows right under Don Rafael's nose.
While pulling off this daring raid, he is assisted by two pre-adolecent boys, the Murieta brothers, and as a reward, he gives one of them the medallion from around his neck.
But the wily governor exacts a painful revenge. He surprises the good-hearted nobleman without his mask in his castle, kills his wife and kidnaps his infant daughter. Don Diego is condemned as “a traitor to your class” and left to rot in a dark dungeon.
Twenty years pass, and Don Rafael returns to California with a plan to buy the former colony from Mexico with stolen gold. With him is Don Diego's daughter, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he has raised as his own. The myth of Zorro still lives among the people who've been as exploited by the Mexican authorities as they were by the Spanish. Don Diego escapes from prison to take revenge on the former governor.
The Murieta brothers have grown up and been driven into banditry. They are hunted down, and one of them is killed by an ex-American army officer who allies himself with Don Rafael. The surviving sibling, Alejandro (Antonio Banderas), still wears the medallion Don Diego had given him.
Like Don Diego, Alejandro is motivated by revenge. But despite his inherent strength and courage he doesn't have the skills to best the authorities, a situation he refuses to acknowledge. On the other hand, Don Diego realizes he has become too old to keep Don Rafael's men in check and decides to train Alejandro to replace him and become the next Zorro. After Don Diego easily defeats Alejandro in a sword fight, the younger man reluctantly allows the older one to become his mentor. The design on Alejandro's medallion, in fact, represents the training circle in Don Diego's castle. Like a Zen master, the elder Zorro teaches his successor not only the tricks of superior swordsman-ship but also how to control his emotions and put them at the service of his intellect and will. The younger man is at the same time encouraged to develop manners and a moral sensibility. The filmmakers play Alejandro's initial cockiness and ineptitude for laughs. This allows the young, contemporary audience to distance itself from the old-fashioned heroics of the genre which it might find corny and yet enjoy itself at the climax when Alejandro finally pulls it all together.
During the action-packed finale, Don Diego also reveals to Elena that she is his daughter, and Alejandro, after dueling with her, falls in love.
It's also refreshing that the Church is depicted as a friend of Zorro and the poor instead of as a pillar of an oppressive establishment, the stereotype Hollywood often perpetuates.
The filmmakers explore the link between banditry and political oppression in only enough depth to kick off the convoluted plot. But the movie is mostly a mixture of self-deprecating humor and old-fashioned derring-do that works. The magic of the older Zorro epics has been successfully recreated.
Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles. Zorro is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.