The dashing masked avenger Zorro made his first swashbuckling appearance 100 years ago in the pages of a US magazine to become an international icon alongside the likes of Tarzan and Superman.
The original caped crusader, Zorro was created by US writer Johnston McCulley and introduced in the story ‘The Curse of Capistrano’, carried in a Californian pulp magazine over five weeks starting from August 9, 1919.
In conceiving the sword-wielding defender of the downtrodden, McCulley set the stage for a whole century of superheroes.
“Zorro is the original caped crusader. Before Batman, before Superman, before Wonder Woman there was Zorro,” American history professor Stephen Andes, who studies the history and myth of Zorro, says on his website.
Mexican role model?
The prolific McCulley (1883-1958) went on to pen about 60 books about Zorro, which means “fox” in Spanish, but was reputed for his reluctance to say what inspired the character.
One theory is that he was modelled on real-life Mexican highway bandit, Joaquin Murieta, who took revenge for abuses of his countrymen in California during the 19th-century Gold Rush.
Another is that he was drawn from the Scarlet Pimpernel character — created by Hungarian-British writer Emma Orczy — who rescued aristocrats before they were sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution.
“Zorro was intended to express the spirit of the caballero of the times, and to everyone’s satisfaction he did,” the US Oakland Tribune Magazine wrote in 1923 after interviewing the author.
The character is the alter-ego of a young 19th-century Spanish nobleman, Don Diego de la Vega, who returns to California from studies in Spain to find it being ruled by corrupt and cruel tyrants.
When he takes action in defence of the defenceless, he disguises himself in black with a cape, hat and mask covering the top of his face. He famously uses his sword to leave a ‘Z’ on his defeated villans.
His secret identity is known only to his trusted servant Bernardo, who is mute, and to his intelligent black horse Tornado.
From silent to blockbuster
It was on the screen that Zorro became famous. A year after ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ was published, it had been adapted for cinema as the silent film ‘The Mark of Zorro’ starring Douglas Fairbanks, then one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
More than 50 Zorro films followed, a handful made in Mexico and including spoofs and erotic versions. Two featuring Spanish actor Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were Hollywood blockbusters: ‘The Mask of Zorro’ (1998) and its sequel ‘The Legend of Zorro’ (2005).
The Walt Disney television series, which ran for 78 episodes from 1957 to 1961, remains popular, still aired in France, for example. Its musical title is legendary: “Out of the night, when the full moon is bright, comes the horseman known as Zorro. This bold renegade carves a ‘Z’ with his blade. A ‘Z’ that stands for Zorro.”
The character is played by the tall American Guy Williams, a fencer who did all the many sword duels himself with an unprotected blade.
Another Zorro television series was produced in the Philippines until 2009, with nearly 100 episodes, and a popular telenovela saw more than 110 episodes in Colombia.
In theatre, animation, comics books, and video games, Zorro was credited by the creator of Batman, American Bob Kane, as a “major influence” on his own masked and cloaked character who debuted 20 years later.
In her 2005 ‘Zorro: The Novel’, Chilean novelist Isabel Allende imagines the background of the Zorro character, depicting him as “a mixture of Robin Hood, Peter Pan and Che Guevara”.