Mention the word ‘remake’ in the context of modern Hollywood and you’re likely to find yourself on the blunt end of an opinion – or three. It’s not surprising; over the last several years theaters have been inundated with a variety of controversial and sometimes disappointing remakes. Films like Robocop, Point Break, and Godzilla have pushed the remake trend to the extreme and upset many moviegoers along the way with their questionable quality. Things weren’t always like this. Don’t get me wrong, the motion picture industry has a long history of remakes, but maybe the practice wasn’t as cynical and focused on the bottom line. One great example from the golden age of Hollywood? The riveting 1940 remake of The Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and Basil Rathbone.
Dashing aristocrat Don Diego Vega (Power) returns from Spain to his native California only to discover that his father, previously the magistrate of Los Angeles, has been replaced by the villainous Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) and his Captain of the Guard, Esteban Pasquale (Rathbone). To his friends and family, the junior Vega comes off as foppish and uncaring, more interested in the latest Spanish fashions than the suffering of the poor. In reality, Vega has been striking back against the corrupt Quintero by donning a black mask and taking up the sword, becoming the mysterious figure Zorro. The well-being of the peoples of California hang in the balance while Zorro strikes fear into the hearts of their oppressors.
With its rousing swordplay, quick wit, and perfect enunciation, this is classic Hollywood in fine form. Tyrone Power as Zorro cuts a dashing figure, and although he cannot deliver snappy comebacks quite like an Errol Flynn, his talented swordplay more than makes up for it. In fact, Basil Rathbone, who was himself a talented fencer, even stated that “Tyrone Power could fence Errol Flynn into a cocked hat!” The film makes the most of these fine actors by utilizing the talents of Hollywood fencing master Fred Cavens who specialized in staging more realistic fights that eschewed the stylized leaping and furniture-hopping seen previously. The choice works, and every fight feels genuinely dangerous in a way few swordfights from this period do. Linda Darnell is a perfectly fine heroine, but the actress who really steals the show is Gale Sondergaard playing the sly, conniving Inez Quintero. Her scheming is delightful to watch and makes for some great moments when paired with Power.