Saturday, February 23, 2008

Zorro Rides Again

Zorro Rides Again posterAs early as 1937, it seems, Zorro already needed some updating. But no problem: the story proves to be almost infinitely flexible. Zorro Rides Again, another twelve-episode Republic serial, promises its viewers "a New Zorro... More dashing... More courageous... More romantic than his famous ancestor." This is in short "the modern Zorro."

So the setting has moved to the (then) present day. This is a Zorro of planes, trains, and automobiles. Above all, however, of trains. One Manuel Vega and his US partners Joyce and Philip Andrews are building a railroad from California to the Yucatán, that will therefore unite the United States and Mexico for the good of the Mexican people. Unfortunately, these good capitalists are confronted with bad capitalists and their "money-mad plottings." The evil corporate mastermind is one J. A. Marsden, who from his office on the tenth floor of an urban skyscraper directs a band of thugs led by "El Lobo" to sabotage the enterprise in a bid to ensure that Vega and the Andrews sell him their company.

Vega is the great-nephew of the revered folk hero Zorro. So when Manuel dies in episode on and his own nephew James Vega arrives from the city to take over his interest, the newcomer happens to be Zorro's great-grandson. And like a fish to water, young James takes over his great-grandfather's disguise: mild-mannered, bookish, and ineffectual for the most part, he becomes a dashing hero and tireless avenger when he puts on the dark uniform and mask of Zorro.

James also, as part of the same transformation, becomes Mexican. His fluent US accent (presumably picked up at school or university north of the border, though logic is hardly this film's forte) is replaced by a guttural Hispanic pidgin in which he comes out with lines such as "I hav some beesneess wiv El Lobo" and "Did dey say at what time the train would get dere?" So it is not just the train line that will unite north and south: as anglicized James becomes Mexican Zorro and back again, he plays the part of a character who has no clear national allegiance.

But there's a paradox here. Presumably the benefit of the railroad to the Mexican people is that it will bring them modernity. (Though this argument is only ever implicit: apart from Manuel's brief presence prior to his untimely demise, and Zorro's ever faithful manservant and sidekick Renaldo, the only Mexicans we see are confined to the local cantina; everyone working on the railroad itself is American, as are the hired ruffians whose leader El Lobo actually turns out to be named Brad Dace.) Yet modernity can only be assured through a decidedly nostalgic resurrection of the long-dead folk hero. "The spirit of Zorro will never die," we're told, but the film depicts a transition from the Wild West of horses and gunplay in which Zorro once thrived to a new world of machines (including machine guns) in which he will surely become obsolete.

Zorro Rides Again still
As if to deal head-on with this tension, one of the serial's episodes sees Zorro fly to New York. Here he engages in firefights on the roof of one of Gotham City's office buildings, cunningly using his whip in much the same way as Spider-man would many years later use his webbing: to swing through the concrete canyons. He also shows the weaknesses of modern technology, listening in to the radio transmissions by which Marsden transmits his orders to his Mexico-based heavies. More generally, it's as though the film wanted to differentiate not only between capitalists but also between a good modernity that is constructive and still respects tradition versus a bad modernity that seeks only destruction and profit.

But the line between good and bad modernity is as hazy as the line between Mexico and the US, breached in the person of James/Zorro himself. The contradictions of modernization are displaced south of the border because it is taken for granted that a train line has to be of benefit to the Mexican people. But once there, the invocation of tradition to defend capitalist progress simply introduces further complications, rather than the imagined resolution that incarnating in the same person both Mexico and the US, past and present, as first sight seems to offer.

YouTube Link: serial trailer.

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