Thursday, July 05, 2018

The Many Faces of Zorro

"The Many Faces of Zorro" (2002) is a documentary directed by Brett Ellis about the filming tradition in Zorro movies throughout time. This documentary contains three sections. First, there is a summary of the different versions and characters behind the mask of Zorro since its creation in McCulley's comic-like, Californian adventure stories, to the latest (at that time) incarnation in Campbell's "The Mask of Zorro" (1998). Second, Ellis interviews the stars of Codwall's Zorro: Caroline Zeta-Jones, Anthony Hopkins, and Antonio Banderas; additionally, there are interviews to few actors and actresses of previous Zorro versions such as Linda Stirling from Zorro's Black Whip and Britt Lomond from the Zorro Disney series. And third, Ellis includes two interviews with sword and whip choreographers who explain the importance of those instruments in history and in Zorro movies.

Appart from being a documentary about Zorro, it is a documentary about "The Mask of Zorro". According to the research made for this documentary, the stories of Zorro were widely popular since its first appearance on screen with Douglas Fairbanks acting as the dual-identity hero. With the time many other producers found the potential of Zorro's character and its versatility to inspire new stories with the same, or new heroes that were basically imitations of Zorro. Nevertheless, none of those reincarnations of Zorro reached the popularity McCulley's writings had. That seemed to have changed with the Zorro Disney series. With a bigger budget, talented actors, and under the Disney slogan, Zorro became one of the favourite TV shows of a Saturday morning. All previous or future movies about the masked legend stayed under the shadow of Fairbanks for being the first or Disney for its fame. But there it comes Ellis' Zorro, the promise of reviving the old Californian hero and take him finally to the big screens of Hollywood.

Why did a hero that has been incarnated more times than we can count take so long to arrive at the big screens? For Ellis, Campbell movie is the final and necessary come back to the traditional Spanish Californian Zorro that helps the less fortunate. History and tradition kept Zorro stories alive, but relegated to low-budget production, to easily forgotten weekend matinee series, or to inspire imitations of new invincible superheroes that over the years have lost almost every connection to their father, Zorro. Ellis tracks and shows those connections of the most famous Hollywood superheroes such as Superman, Spiderman, Captian Marvel, Batman, among others, with the original stories written by McCulley. All of them emerged from the Spanish and later the Mexican California popular legends and reflect its history of struggles for decolonization and national independence. And each new modification in the plot again reflects a period of instability or conflict. Lots of Zorro movies are produced after wars or are about wars.

Through interviews with sword and whip choreographers we introduced to the history behind the use of those instruments and their importance for the Zorro movies plots. Just like dialogues in Spanish remind us of California's past as part of Mexico, swords and whips create a permanent attachment between any Zorro movie, and colonial Latin America, especially with Mexico and the Spanish rule of California before becoming part of the United States.

But more importantly, Zorro and the performative nature that is deeply-rooted in the duality of the character (one actor performing the roles of two different characters) say a lot about what is acting itself. Since its beginnings, Zorro's double personality was used by Douglas Fairbanks to demonstrate and promote his acting skills on screen. This is the case as well in The Mask of Zorro. From learning how to use the sword and whip as Spaniards would use them, to pretending to be a romantic Latino in Banderas case (as an actor), or an aristocrat when he is the peasant son-on-law to-be of Don Diego de la Vega (as Alejandro de la Vega character).

Though we have become more familiar with the repetition of heroes hiding second identities, Zorro is by essence different. It carries in itself the origins of those new masked heroes. It portrays Latin America's history from the colony to how we know it today. It is a reflection of California's evolution and transitions out of Latin America to being an American state. And it is the display of character appropiation in acting, making the viewer forget that is seeing Banderas, de la Vega, and Zorro at the same time, instead we are convinced of being seeing one at the time.

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