The Mark of Zorro

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades


My old friend Basil Rathbone was an expert fencer. His swordsmanship is on display in a number of classic movies – ranging from “Captain Blood” to “the Mark of Zorro.”

Rathbone was considered the best fencer in Hollywood. In fact, he was a two-time British Army fencing Champ. Thus, his skill was far superior to his on-screen foes Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Ironically, as scripted, his characters rarely won those swordfights.

He once told me, “Errol Flynn was a lousy swordsman. I could have run him through at any given moment.”

The Mark of Zorro is a 1940 swashbuckling Western film released by 20th Century Fox, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, and starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and Basil Rathbone.

The film was based on “The Curse of Capistrano” by Johnston McCulley – the 1919 serialized novel being the first appearance of Zorro.

You can catch “The Mark of Zorro” at Tropic Cinema.

In it, foppish Don Diego Vega is called home to Southern California by his father. Shocked at the way folks are being treated by the local magistrate, Don Diego adopts the secret identity of El Zorro (“The Fox”), a masked outlaw dressed entirely in black, in order to defend the populace in a fight for justice. To do this, Zorro must face off with the governor’s deadly henchman, Captain Esteban Pasquale. At the same time, he falls for the magistrate’s beautiful niece.

Handsome Tyrone Power took on the dual role of Don Diego/Zorro. 16-year-old Linda Darnell was cast as the love interest. And Rathbone, of course, was perfect as the saber-wielding Captain Pasquale.

As we expect, Tyrone Power wins the fight; Rathbone loses. All perfectly choreographed.

“The famous duel was staged by Hollywood fencing master Fred Cavens,” IMDb tells us. “Cavens specialized in staging duels that relied more on actual swordplay rather than the jumping on furniture and leaping from balconies that many film ‘duels’ consisted of up until that point. Cavens’ son, Albert Cavens, doubled for Tyrone Power in the fancier parts of the duel (mostly with his back to camera).”

Fast fencing shots were undercranked to 18 or 20 frames per second (as opposed to the standard 24 fps) to increase the excitement.

Although a champion fencer, Basil Rathbone did not care for the saber (the weapon of choice in this film), but nevertheless did all of his own fencing.

Rathbone was reasonably impressed with Tyrone Power’s swordsmanship. He said, “Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.”

Who else did Basil Rathbone consider a great opponent? Surprisingly, Danny Kaye in “The Court Jester” (1955).

Rathbone said, “We had to fight a duel together with saber. I don’t care much for saber but had had instruction in this weapon during my long association with all manner of swords. Our instructor was Ralph Faulkner, a very well-known swordsman on the Coast who had specialized in saber. After a couple of weeks of instruction, Danny Kaye could completely outfight me! Even granting the difference in our ages, Danny’s reflexes were incredibly fast, and nothing had to be shown or explained to him a second time.”

That would be the last swordfight Rathbone ever filmed.

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