1920 marked a major turning point in the career of movie star Douglas Fairbanks. Not only did he marry Mary Pickford, the most popular actress in silent film, he also embarked on a new screen career. After World War I, audiences had grown bored with the cheerful, boy-meets-girl romantic comedies that had made Fairbanks so popular, so he decided to try a different tactic. A short story by Johnston McCulley, “The Curse of Capistrano,” had appeared in the pulp magazine, All-Story Weekly. Fairbanks decided to capitalize on his physical agility and devil-may-care attitude to make a film of the story, renamed The Mark of Zorro, in 1920. Zorro became the prototype for a new kind of hero – the swashbuckling adventurer.

Although the author might have drawn his inspiration from such characters as the 17th c. avenging cat Puss in Boots, Alexander Dumas’ 19th c. Count of Monte Cristo, the legendary Robin Hood, the American Revolution’s Swamp Fox (‘zorro’ means ‘fox’ in Spanish) and other masked crime fighters, McCulley’s Zorro really stands on his own. Zorro’s vast popularity, spurred by the long-running Walt Disney TV series from the 50s, set the stage for a host of other human and semi-human avengers and superheroes beginning with the Phantom, Batman, Buck Rogers, Superman and the Green Hornet, appearing first in 1930s comic strips and comic books, and later in film and animation.

Fairbanks’ film closely follows the author’s original plot. The Mark of Zorro is set in the 1840s in Spanish-ruled Southern California (though in truth Mexico ruled there after 1827), and the story opens as Don Diego Vega (Fairbanks) returns from Spain to find his family and friends being menaced by a corrupt governor and his henchmen. While Don Diego appears to be an effete dilettante, in reality he is Zorro, a master swordsman who has dedicated his life to fighting evil tyrants. Dressed in a purple cloak and black mask, Zorro torments his enemies further by carving a “Z” on the bodies of his adversaries while laughing in their faces.

While modestly budgeted in comparison to later swashbucklers, The Mark of Zorro serves up a succession of spectacular swordfights and gravity-defying stunts in lieu of an opulent production. Among the highlights is a scene where Zorro leads the soldiers of arch villain, Captain Juan Ramon, on a wild goose chase through the village, and the climactic duel between Zorro and Ramon.

The public was obviously ready for a new brand of escapism because The Mark of Zorro became a box office smash and encouraged Fairbanks to create a new gallery of swashbuckling heroes, including D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Don Q Son of Zorro (1925), and The Black Pirate (1926).

Silent films were never totally silent; they were seen with a variety of accompaniments. Some theaters rented the original Hollywood score composed for the picture and hired an orchestra or arranged it for a small group of musicians. If that were too expensive, a few musicians would find their own music to suit. Other theaters had an organist or pianist improvise a soundtrack or play popular music of the day. HESPERUS does something a bit different; we accompany silent films with music that has a connection to the action on the screen. For Robin Hood we play English Renaissance music; for The General, music from the Civil War. For The Mark of Zorro, we’re playing music from Old and New Spain–Spanish and Native American music from the 16th-18th centuries. We think that this music gives audiences a real sense of place and time. What do you think? Let us know.

For a list of pieces used, or to comment on our presentation, contact us at

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