Sunday, March 02, 2008

Don Q Son of Zorro

Don Q Son of Zorro posterDouglas Fairbanks made his name with the box-office smash The Mark of Zorro, which made his name as a daredevil athlete and swashbuckler. It's no wonder that he should want to capitalize on this success: Don Q Son of Zorro was the first Zorro sequel, and so a franchise was born.

But this is the strangest of sequels, as though the filmmakers had yet to realize the essence of Zorro. What carries over from the previous incarnation is the star (Fairbanks), the rather ridiculous catchphrase ("Have you seen this one?"), but above all the stunts, including a prodigious amount of whip-play. The film's protagonist, Cesar de Vega (aka Don Q), son of Zorro, is seldom without his trusty lariat, which he puts to a variety of uses: to trounce his rivals, of course, but also to lasso wayward bulls, to cut up pieces of paper, to transport himself around the place, to put out candles, and even (as you can see in the film poster above) in one bizarre moment to light his cigarette. No wonder he's known to all and sundry as "the man with the whip." Indiana Jones, eat your heart out!

What gets left behind, however, includes the Spanish-Californian setting, the campaign in favor of the poor and needy, the mask, the black clothes, the horse, the subterranean lair, the double identity, and even the name Zorro itself. Yet in just about every other Zorro iteration, these are staples of the hero's persona. Don Q is like a James Bond without Moneypenny, martinis, or motorcars: barely imaginable.

For the movie finds Cesar de Vega in Madrid, a young gallant entertaining his friends with his whip and speaking highly of his father, Zorro, who is left back in the Americas. De Vega finds himself attracted to a local beauty, one Dolores de Muro, and so earns the enmity of the young lady's other suitor, a Don Sebastian who is an officer in the Queen's guard. The dastardly Sebastian frames Cesar for the murder of a visiting aristocrat, the Archduke Paul, forcing the man with the whip to go underground and somehow plot his revenge. But apart from one very brief scene in which Cesar adopts the pseudonym Don Q (hence the film's title), his stratagems involve no fictitious personae, let alone taking on the black mask of the caped crusader.

Zorro himself (the father, also played by Fairbanks) is belatedly called out of retirement so that he can take part in the final battle in which (of course) young Cesar turns the tables, proves his innocence, and wins his heart's desire. Moreover, Zorro's recall to action motivates a brief flashback to the previous film, in which he'd embedded a saber in the wall of his hacienda, leaving it there until he needed it again. So the trusty weapon comes in handy as he comes to the aid of his son. But though we are repeatedly told that the son is a chip off the old man's block, in fact Zorro's appearance provides only a momentary blast from the past rather than the sense that the same struggle continues.

Subsequent Zorros will reinvent the story's basic premises for their time. This one fails to see what those premises were, and so almost puts an end to the possibility of further sequels even as it inaugurates a flood of cinematic repetitions.

In short, if the Zorro franchise as a whole is about performativity and power on an ambiguous and shifting frontier between Anglo and Latin America, Don Q misses that point spectacularly by giving us a tale of individual rights back in the old world. But future incarnations will not make the same mistake twice.

Zorro and Son. Spot the differences?

Labels: ,