Zorro: Who Is That Masked Man?

Tyrone Power as Zorro

The Mexicans like their heroes the way they like their tacos – with cheese.
Enter Zorro. Cue mask, cape and ludicrous pencil moustache



Next time you’re in London, try the Robin Hood Zorro restaurant in Hammersmith. This oddly conceived English/Mexican hybrid serves an equally odd drink called the Robin Hood Meets Zorro cocktail. A mouthful to order and a hell of a thing to drink, it contains tequila, gin and beer. The menu doesn’t say it’s served with a bucket, but it probably should be.

What is it about Zorro that seems to bring out the naffness in … well, everything?

It was not always thus. Dial back to the mists of the silent movie era and there’s Douglas Fairbanks Sr, the original screen Zorro, dressed like some gangsta off the streets of South Central LA, doing all his own stunts. If you don’t believe me, watch the Youtube video here and be amazed.

Made in 1920 only a year after Zorro was created in the book The Curse of Capistrano, this is Zorro fresh and vibrant, a Spanish nobleman championing the rights of the little man in the pueblos of Los Angeles in a California that was still a wild dry desert under the Mexican flag.

Dial forward to 1981 and there’s George Hamilton, in Zorro, The Gay Blade, all porcelain veneers and Ronseal tan. A more unlikely example of courageous masculinity it would be had to imagine.

Zorro is America’s first superhero. A re-imagining of the Scarlet Pimpernel – foppish noble by day, man of action by night – he’s the prototype of Batman and every superhero with a cape, a mask and a secret identity. And like Batman, he’s a very easy figure to turn into a camp figure of fun.

Zorro – the thin pencil moustache, the trousers tucked into leather boots, the gaucho hat, the cape, the bandana. You can’t imagine Jason Statham growling his way through a film dressed like that.

Which takes us to Tyrone Power, a famous Zorro of the 1940s, an actor who actually did look good in hat, cape and etc. So good in fact that the rumour factory had soon decided Power was gay. And Zorro the gay blade he remained till his death and beyond.

And from Power, on past George Hamilton (enough said already) to Antonio Banderas. Now no one is going to suggest that Banderas is anything but 100 per cent man’s man – certainly not while there’s a lawyer still breathing on the planet – but his two outings as Zorro are undoubtedly the campest of the lot. “Nobody leaves my tequila worm dangling in the wind”– he says in The Legend of Zorro, legs athwart, arms akimbo, tongue rammed hard into cheek.

And in Shrek 2 and Puss in Boots Banderas turns up again as a cartoon Zorro who’s even more of a joke than his live-action version.

Is it because he’s Hispanic that gringo American productions turn this iconic mother lode of 20th century superhero culture into something of a mother’s boy? Or is it the mask? Let’s face it, it’s not much of a disguise. Who is that masked man? Er, it’s Antonio Banderas, obviously.

Whatever it is the Zorros keep coming – Disney are hatching an animated version, while the Gypsy Kings are planning on opening their musical Zorro in multiple worldwide locations after a box-office bonanza in London.

Whoever that masked man is, he’s making a lot of people a lot of money.


Ten Great Mexican Films



Amores Perros (2000, dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)

Three stories collide in the key work of the New Mexican cinema, a gorgeous looking, superheated drama full of macho men, fiery women and fighting dogs.

Amores Perros – at Amazon


Y Tu Mamá También (2001, dir: Alfonso Cuarón)

The drama that made Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal internationally famous is a coming-of-age road movie with a philosophical flavour. Maribel Verdu ensures it’s pretty sexy too.

Y Tu Mamá También – at Amazon


El Topo (1970, dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky)

One of the maddest films ever made, a freakish spaghetti western populated with cruel, cackling banditos, pinheads, armless and legless freaks, bare-breasted women and spontaneously combusting rabbits.

El Topo – at Amazon


Midaq Alley (1995, dir: Jorge Fons)

The film that helped Salma Hayek bust – in every sense of the word –out of Mexico into Hollywood is a full-to-the-brim soap given extra wallop by Hayek’s sex-and-drugs storylines.

Midaq Alley – at Amazon


Cronos (1993, dir: Guillermo Del Toro)

The breakthrough of director Guillermo Del Toro is a classic horror film about a medieval device that makes the wearer immortal. An offbeat vampire story that’s full of magic realism, humour and horror.

Cronos – at Amazon


Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir: Guillermo Del Toro)

Del Toro’s best to date, a fierce fantasy set in Franco’s Spain about a girl who escapes the world of her brutish stepfather by entering the realm of a horned and threatening mythical beast. Magical.

Pan’s Labyrinth – at Amazon


El Mariachi (1992, dir: Robert Rodriguez)

Shot in Ciudad Acuñaby by second-generation Mexican Robert Rodriguez on a budget of $7,000, the story of a wandering modern minstrel looking for work. What’s in his guitar case? And why is everyone out to kill him?

El Mariachi – at Amazon


Like Water for Chocolate (1992, dir: Alfonso Arau)

In Mexico a person in a state of sexual arousal is said to be “like water for chocolate”– this beautiful intense love story, in which everyone seems ready to boil over, makes it clear why.

Like Water for Chocolate – at Amazon


Sex, Shame and Tears (1999, dir: Antonio Serrano)

A lively film that will remind some of Doris Day and Rock Hudson sex comedies. That’s if you ignore the fact one of the main characters is a rapist! Weird, disjointed and beautifully acted.

Sex, Shame and Tears – at Amazon


Rudo Y Cursi (2008, dir: Carlos Cuarón)

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna star in about the best film made to date about what happens to a poor boy from nowhere when he becomes a superstar footballer. Funny, believable, tragic.

Rudo Y Cursi – at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2011



Tropa de Elite aka Elite Squad

Anyone who’s read a lot of film reviews will be familiar with the “redeeming features” style of reviewing. “Worth a look to see De Niro on fire”, “Ken Adam’s set designs lend it a style the script is struggling to equal”, and so on.

Sometimes people pop round to my house to borrow a dvd and, as we whisk through a shimmering stack of them, I give it loads of “redeeming feature” bullshit – “you know the director of Consequences of Love, he made this one”, “Buster Keaton’s last film before he got booted out of his own production company” etc etc.

When all the borrowing party wants to know is – is it any good? The answer, almost inevitably once the “redeeming features” phrases have been trotted out, is no.

And so we turn to Tropa de Elite, aka Elite Squad, a Brazilian cops’n’thugs thriller set in the favelas of Rio. It’s got the good looks of Amores Perros (that bleached, cross-processed film) and the edgy camera and favela vibe of City Of God. Nothing wrong with either of those.

What it hasn’t got is any real idea what style of cops’n’thugs film it wants to be, nor does it have convincing character pegs on which to hang its story.

It is, you could say, the story of two cops – the tough captain losing his nut because his wife’s about to have a kid, and the rookie who learns the hard way that he’s no longer like normal kids. He can’t hang out and smoke weed any more. In his night-school class they’re studying Foucault’s Discipline and Punish – a crucial text for anyone who want to give their “the state’s out to get us” paranoia some philosophical bottom – but for him it isn’t an unpicking of the rotten order, it’s a personal affront.

Neither person feels real enough to care for, though both are undoubtedly interesting, or should be. And the reason they’re not real is because the director José Padilha seems more interested in making his characters hurtle through too many scenarios from other films – apart from a Goodfellas narrator and a Mean Streets vibe, I counted Donnie Brasco (cop discovers the bad guys aren’t that bad), Training Day (rookie appalled but charmed by evil superiors), a bit of In the Line of Fire (the story is being nudged forwards by the arrival in Rio of Pope John Paul II in 1997) and Full Metal Jacket (tough training makes the man, forges the team). It only really works in FMJ mode and that’s because Full Metal Jacket and other films like it (Tigerland springs to mind) deliver foolproof structure, plus tension, plus ample space and encouragement for character.

In short, the film is largely form- and character-free and no amount of fine-looking Brazilian student women, wonderful lighting, swooshing camerawork, atmospheric sound, brilliant locations, wonderful bit-part players, urgent gun fights, all utterly convincing, and mood, mood, mood by the bucket can make it a good film. Which is a pity.

Tons of redeeming features but what can you do?




© Steve Morrissey 2009




Elite Squad – at Amazon



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