Who Was That Masked Man?

The gay blade: Zorro (Antonio Banderas) and his secret weapon in The Mask of Zorro

The Mask of Zorro
area theaters

The Mark of Zorro
Stevens Square Park
Wednesday, July 29, at dusk

"Get it on!" the guy next to me shouts as the swordplayers on screen engage in a sensuous dance of parry and thrust. Touché! But this is not Antonio Banderas embroiled in a passionate tête à tête with siren Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the ubiquitous trailers to this summer's The Mask of Zorro have led us to expect. Instead, Banderas swashes and buckles with the lion-maned Captain Harry Love (Matt Letscher), and even though this retrofitted version of the gay-blade classic tries hard, it can't quite mask its homoerotic history.

Zorro has played all sides of the ladies' man/man's man spectrum, from Johnston McCulley's original 1919 serial novel to the 1981 big-screen spoof starring George Hamilton (Zorro, the Gay Blade). As the masked avenger disguised behind a meek alter-ego in the first Mark of Zorro from 1920 (screening July 29 as part of Red Eye Cinema's movies-and-music series), Douglas Fairbanks Sr. cemented his status as celluloid icon, virtually defining both the action comedy and superhero genres in the process. (Indeed, Superman's 1930s creators patterned their caped crusader--including his hands-on-hips stance--after Fairbanks.)

The acrobatic Fairbanks indulged his muscular side as Zorro, the mustachioed champion of the people who woos Lolita (Marguerite de la Motte) while defending Californians from a corrupt government populated by tyrants and "fashion-plates." Zorro's foes include a blustery Sgt. Gonzalez (Noah Beery) and the evil Capt. Ramon (Robert McKim), the latter of whom "forces his attentions" upon the fair Lolita. Alternately, Fairbanks displayed a playful touch as Don Diego Vega, the stoop-shouldered aristocrat who finds chivalry fatiguing, prefers magic tricks, and raises Lolita's suspicion that "he isn't a man--he's a fish!"

But if Zorro experimented with masculine style, Fairbanks himself had made his career as America's quintessential Boy Scout--writing advice manuals for boys and favoring roles as the chest-thumping hero who overcomes his own feminine tendencies. Still, even though Fairbanks intended Diego to win laughs and not thrills, he played him with intriguing zeal--and to an audience of admiring boys.

Twenty years later, Tyrone Power tapped into this boy-friendly tradition when he made his own Mark of Zorro in 1940. Once again, the young Diego disguises himself as a languid "popinjay" so that, as Zorro, he can wage war against the corrupt dictator who has stolen the office from Diego's benevolent father. Zorro's guerrilla strategies include seducing the mayor's vain wife (Gale Sondergaard), courting Lolita (Linda Darnell), impersonating a monk (Eugene Pallett), and taking on sword-happy Captain Esteban (Basil Rathbone). Although reviewers complained that Power lacked the original Zorro's athletic prowess and "swished" more than swashed, the new Z packed more verbal punch, putting the rapier into its wit. And thanks to the clever cuts of director Rouben Mamoulian--who drew on the shadowy secret-identity theme he had perfected in 1932 with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde--Zorro put more dash into his duels.

Power expended most of that verve in the company of sparring partner Rathbone, whose Capt. Esteban built a rep "forever thrusting at this and that." From their first encounter, the two engage in triple entendres and over-the-top subtext: "How can I refuse a man anything with a naked sword in his hand?" asks Diego, to which Esteban inquires, "Do you fancy the weapon?" Until their final, thrilling showdown, "inside" jokes about pricks, mounts, fruits, and fops fly as fast as their weapons. But for all that ambiguous flair, Power temporarily sealed the gay blade's straight fate, as his Zorro makes plans at the end of the movie to marry and "raise fat children." Still, with the hero hurling his shining blade into the rafters at film's end, fans knew the lineage would continue.

And indeed, suddenly this summer Zorro returns to claim--and sanitize--the legend in The Mask of Zorro. Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) vows revenge when evil Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) kills Diego's wife, steals his baby Elena, and imprisons him. Twenty years later, the wizened Z recruits an unruly bandit (Banderas) to settle the score and, while he's at it, to liberate hundreds of slave miners. But before he passes the shaft to his eager protégé, the consummate gentleman must school him in the courtly ways of a "man of stature," resulting in a rigorous regimen of wine drinking, cigar smoking, muscle building, and saber handling in their secret hideout. Thereafter, the new Zorro tangos, beguiles, cuts his way into Elena's manta, and brings justice to vanquished Mexican-Indian peons.

Had Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Desperado) directed what was once billed as an "all-Hispanic" Zorro, it's likely that the peons would have proved much less lame--and Anglos wouldn't have stolen almost all the main roles. But, mirroring Hollywood's venerable Western tradition of underpaying Mexicans, Rodriguez was bounced from the film over "budgetary" differences. And while this film's approach to manhood might be playful, its handling of history is nothing if not confused, featuring such anachronistic slang as "peckerwood" and, in a bid for special FX, flaunting dynamite three decades too early. This Zorro still trusts the titillation of that furious swordplay, but his latest handlers aren't so confident--or charming.

Except Banderas, who endows Zorro with a bumbling, barely bridled bravado that's at once gentle and reckless, epitomized by his mock-classic relationship with his disobedient horse. If nothing else, casting Banderas as the new swell leaves a little room for sexual ambiguity. After all, this is the man who launched his career over a decade ago playing gay hunks for director Pedro Almodovar (e.g., Labyrinth of Passion, Law of Desire)--not to mention his mainstream turn as the lover of Tom Hanks's lawyer character in Philadelphia.

Almost as a preventative antidote to any such ambisextrous play, Zorro's makers have downsized the man-to-man close-ups, focusing on filial love rather than flirty male bonding (not to mention the costumes, which are considerably less form-fitting even though the movie briefly reveals a bit more skin). And Zorro sacrifices sexy shapeshifting for het consistency, telling Elena that "Zorro has been many men but he has loved you as all of them." Less player than patriarch, the sly fox is now more concerned with procreation than recreation. Then again, there's hope for the sequel, as this one ends with Zorro leaving mother and child in the nursery, closing the door behind him, and walking off into the sunset...alone...available.

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