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Remembering "The Mask of Zorro" (1998)

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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

The Mask of Zorro is a 1998 adventure swashbuckler film based on a vigilante character created by Johnston McCulley, who in turn based Zorro on real-life Californian bandit Joaquin Murrieta. This film takes both the legend and the real man and gives him a story ripped straight out of The Count of Monte Cristo.

More fun trivia: Zorro is actually Spanish for "fox."

The Murrieta brothers sing "No body's tough as a Jack."

The Murrieta brothers sing "No body's tough as a Jack."

Though the legend of Zorro was actually based on folktales of Mexican bandit Joaquin Murrieta, the character Zorro was a Spaniard known as Don Diego de la Vega. And even then, no actual Spaniards played the role for 70 years. It's like the real Joaquin Murrieta became a never-ending Russian nesting doll of different depictions of himself.

Thus it was that Antonio Banderas became the first Spaniard to play Zorro.

I found it interesting how the film acknowledged that the torch was being passed by having an elderly non-Spaniard Anthony Hopkins play the aging and bitter Don Diego de la Vega, while Spaniard Banderas played young and hot-headed Alejandro Murrieta.

It was a deliberate inversion of a long standing tradition, an attempt to bring both the legend and the truth together.

Remembering the Plot

Zorro (Hopkins) threatens Don Rafael Montero.

Zorro (Hopkins) threatens Don Rafael Montero.

The film actually opens with Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) being drawn into a trap by Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), the wicked governor of California.

Montero has gathered a crowd, pulled random people from it, and is going to have them shot unless Zorro shows up and saves them. His intention is to capture and kill Zorro. Instead, he takes a nasty Z on the neck, and (after being saved by the Murrieta brothers, who are both children at the time) Zorro escapes.

The Murrieta boys admire Zorro's medallion.

The Murrieta boys admire Zorro's medallion.

Before leaving, however, Zorro gives Joaquin is medallion. Both boys are awestruck and want to be just like Zorro, the champion of the oppressed people of California.

De La Vega and Montero spar for Esperanza.

De La Vega and Montero spar for Esperanza.

Then comes the "Monte Cristo" plot I alluded to earlier. Zorro goes home to his wife and child (Elena) to find that Montero is waiting for him.

Montero wanted Zorro's wife for his own. I'm not going to write "Montero was in love with Esperanza" because he simply wasn't. Montero was sexist. He didn't see Esperanza as an autonomous being with a right to love who she desired, and as a result, he didn't respect her choice to marry de La Vega and have a family with him. Instead, he saw Esperanza as a thing to be acquired. He came to Zorro's home to take his wife and arrest him.

De La Vega fights back, but Esperanza is killed in the struggle. Zorro is then arrested and sent to prison, while Montero takes Elena and adopts her as his own.

Benjamin Barker and wife Lucy are watched by the villainous Judge Turpin.

Benjamin Barker and wife Lucy are watched by the villainous Judge Turpin.

You know . . . it's always bothered me that the "Monte Cristo" plot was used here because it has been used so many times. An evil man sees a woman he wants to acquire like a thing and gets rid of the woman's husband, only for the woman to be killed and/or go insane, with the villain adopting her child . . .

I about screamed the first time i saw Sweeney Todd and realized the play had done the same damn story, too. It was also done in Pan's Labyrinth. Also, didn't King David do this in the Bible? And it was also done in The Man in the Iron Mask (another favorite swashbuckler of mine, admittedly), when King Louis killed a man and seduced his fiancee, only for her to commit suicide out of guilt.

To be honest, though, Elena had it way easier than poor Joanna.

Remembering Elena

Elena meets her nanny at the market.

Elena meets her nanny at the market.

Joanna was locked 24/7 in a dark room, not allowed to have friends or fun, while being preyed upon by the perverted man who r*ped her mother and sent her father to prison. She had no hope of escape and spent her days sadly singing at the window while watching everyone outside live their lives, completely oblivious to her suffering.

That said, while Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) wasn't abused to such an extent, she was still being abused. Elena was manipulated and lied to her entire life by the man who destroyed her family. Throughout the film, she is unknowingly little more than a consolation prize, a replica of her mother for Don Montero to possess, not love.

Unlike Joanna, Elena was allowed to experience the world. She learned swordplay and horse riding, was given fine dresses and lavish comforts. But all of it came with a price: that she endure her "father's" lies, manipulations, and bouts of casual public humiliation.

Alejandro kisses Elena's hand while in disguise as a don.

Alejandro kisses Elena's hand while in disguise as a don.

During the first half of the film, Montero throws a party for himself and the other dons. At this point, Alejandro has been recruited by de La Vega to be the new Zorro and is attending the party in disguise as a don.

When Alejandro meets Elena, they are immediately smitten with each other. But unfortunately, Alejandrio is in disguise and must pass himself off as a pompous jerk, the kind of arrogant, rich asshole that Montero would approve of. It's the only way for him to gain access to the governor's evil plans.

In fact, Alejandro is so good at pretending that you can you see how Montero approves of him and even likes him. Montero wants Elena to put aside her dreams and romantic notions of swordplay and adventure and settle down with a rich don. When Alejandro explains to Elena why this would be beneficial to her, she smirks at him but is too flattered by the implication that "Don Alejandro" wants to take care of her to really argue.

Of course, Montero interprets Alejandro's speech as "women are just pretty possessions, meant to decorate the houses of rich men" and the audience can see him nodding in agreement with Alejandro.

My screen capture of Elena smirking at Alejandro.

My screen capture of Elena smirking at Alejandro.

As the night goes on, Alejandro is forced to pretend to be an asshole toward Elena. But for anyone paying attention, one can see in Alejandro's (Banderas' puppy dog/Puss in Boots' kitty cat) eyes that he doesn't mean any of it. He is clearly just pretending to fit in. Elena can kind of sense this, which is why she likes Alejandro anyway and teases him about being pompous and delicate, rather than athletic and wild (like her).

Behind his prim facade, Alejandro is the wild, romantic hero that Elena lusts for. It's the entire reason they are drawn to each other to begin with: they are the same.

And Alejandro's true good nature becomes obvious beside the evil governor. While Alejandro is only pretending to be an ass. Montero is actually an ass. Alejandro humiliates Elena with difficulty ("Your daughter is a very spirited dancer . . .") while Montero does it with a cruelly casual indifference.

For instance, when Elena debates vigorously at the table with the men, only to have her father shut her down with, "A woman's take on politics. What can I tell you?"

Not only is Montero a sexist ass, he also humiliates and ridicules his own "daughter." No good father is so cruel to their own child in this manner. Your parents are supposed to embarrass you by wiping bread crumbs off your face, not by dismissing you as stupid based on your sex.

Good parents embarrass from a place of love and concern. Bad parents embarrass you because they callously don't give a shit about your feelings.

Meanwhile, Elena's been so programmed to accept that Montero "loves" her that she doesn't recognize his behavior as abuse, even if it does make her feel bad.

This scene gave teenage me a clue I was gay.

This scene gave teenage me a clue I was gay.

Instead, she has been brainwashed to love her "father" blindly, to the point of trying to stop Zorro from stealing his plans.

And though Elena has been training with a sword since she was six, Zorro -- the guy who thought swordplay boiled down to "the point at the end goes into the other man" -- still manages to best her.

Zorro is the main character, so it only makes sense that he should be the best sword fighter. I'm not complaining. I'm making an amused observation. (I have to say that because people see in my bio that I'm a feminist and then apply whatever tone (usually angry) that they want to my articles.)

All that being said, this is also the film that made me love Catherine Zeta-Jones. This film came out when I was going through puberty and about to enter high school. I was having my first sexual feelings, and they were always triggered by women and women only (meaning that, yes, I'm gay).

Remembering Captain Love

Caption Love threatening someone.

Caption Love threatening someone.

I always thought Captain Love (Matt Letscher) was a pretty great secondary antagonist. And also seriously underrated.

Captain Harrison Love is actually based on the real Captain Love, the head of California's first "police" force and also the famed killer of the real Joaquin Murrieta. In the film, Captain Harrison Love does indeed encounter Joaquin, while it is his brother, Alejandro, who goes on to be Zorro.

One thing I realized after a recent rewatch of this film is that . . . Captain Love isn't actively evil. In fact, he's . . . Lawfully Good. Which, I guess, explains why he's so easy to hate. (Lawfully Good characters are inherently obnoxious in that they can not think for themselves.)

For those who don't speak nerd, Lawfully Good characters are character's whose moral compass is guided by the law. Blindly guided. So if the law said that it was legal for children to be beaten with tennis rackets, a Lawfully Good character would look the other way as it was happening.

Captain Love is Lawfully Good. He doesn't hunt down the Murrieta brothers because he's evil. He does it because they're freaking bandits who steal and kill and need to be captured.

Captain Love faces Zorro.

Captain Love faces Zorro.

During the beginning of the first half of the film, Captain Love manages to corner both the Murrieta brothers and Three-Fingered Jack after the trio has just robbed, tied up, and threatened a bunch of officers. These guys are not presented as Robin-Hood-like do-gooders. They aren't exactly evil, but they are stealing, attacking law enforcement, and breaking the law. They're criminals.

When Captain Love has managed to corner these literal criminals, he doesn't even try to kill them. He just wants to arrest them. He shoots Three-Fingered Jack in a non-fatal place, and indeed, Three-Fingered Jack survives and is seen later in prison.

Captain Love also shoots Joaquin in the side, the intent being to arrest him. He tells Joaquin (in all seriousness) that it is an honor to arrest and bring in a legendary bandit. But Joaquin spits on him and then shoots himself . . . Captain Love didn't even kill him. Alejandro just thought he did because he ran away and heard the gunshot.

Now, I'm not saying that Captain Love is actually without fault.

I mean, how could I possibly explain away the guy keeping Joaquin's head in a jar, drinking the jar juice (ugh), and then using said head-jar to provoke a reaction from Alejandro?

But then again, why wouldn't Captain Love do this if he thought "Don Alejandro" (who wasn't even smart enough to change his first name) was really Alejandro Murrieta, wanted thief and murderer?

Because let's be real: the Murrieta brothers probably killed their fair share of officers, even if they didn't kill civilians. Being an officer himself, this would give Captain Love the perspective of seeing himself as a good law-abiding man, while Alejandro is a thief, murderer, and a liar.

Captain Love sees himself as a hero who arrests bad guys. It's clear when he argues with "Don" Alejandro at Montero's party that heroism is something to aspire to.

And is he wrong in that regard? Or does he simply have a different idea of heroism? Again, the Murrieta brothers were thieves. They were bandits. Which means they frequently robbed people at gun point, then laughed about it, then robbed people some more. What should Captain Love have done? Not tried to arrest them?

Captain Love is killed by Zorro.

Captain Love is killed by Zorro.

But in the end, Captain Love sides with Montero and helps the man enslave civilians to mine gold, while Alejandro, the thief and murderer, fights to free the people from the mine. The end of the movie makes it clear who the bad guy is and who the good guy is.

Still . . . The level of nuance in this silly swashbuckling film was pretty great. On the surface, Captain Love is a decent, law-abiding man. But in reality, he's just a minion of the evil governor. While on the surface, Alejandro is a thief and murderer. But in reality, he's just a man trying to survive an unjust world while fighting to protect those like him.

Remembering Zorro

De La Vega trains Alejandro.

De La Vega trains Alejandro.

To be honest, I remember being skeptical of Anthony Hopkins as Zorro. This is likely because I watched the classic show when I was a kid. Back in the day, they used to show old cartoons and television programs on TV. So I grew up with stuff from before my time, like the original campy Batman TV show, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies . . .

So I watched a lot of classic stuff, including Zorro. I loved the character so much that I wrote an essay about him in high school, and for years to come, I would be drawn to characters who were similar.

Solas from "Dragon Age: Inquisition."

Solas from "Dragon Age: Inquisition."

Solas, a character from the video game Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, seems to have taken a great deal of inspiration from Zorro. In his youth, he was a hot-headed vigilante hero of the people, a trickster known as "the wolf" instead of "the fox."

Hell, if you agree with my theory that Shartan is just a human/modern elf retelling of Solas during the fight against the gods, then Solas is even remembered as a swordsman and not a mage.

Of course, I actually hate and despise Solas. But I was initially drawn to him and Sera (who I also hate) because they were played up as these champions of the little people (and both turned out to be the exact opposite).

An older Diego smiles.

An older Diego smiles.

So because I used to watch the television series, in my head, I already had an image of Zorro. He was tall, dark, handsome, young . . . Anthony Hopkins was the exact opposite of all that (no offense, Mr. Hopkins). But once I actually saw his performance, I was sold. Hopkins is a great actor and played "old bitter" Zorro well.

Don de La Vega is a nobleman who has been reduced overnight to rags. His youth, vigor, and strength have been lost as he has wasted away in prison, mourning the loss of his wife and child. Once he is free, he spends his time drinking, ruminating, and scheming his revenge.

He is actually no different than Alejandro.

"Where did you get it?"

"Where did you get it?"

When Diego and Alejandro meet, it's in a cantina . . . aka a bar. They are both there to get drunk and mourn their crappy lives.

Diego, for his heroic efforts, is still a born and raised nobleman and something of a snob, who mightn't have even noticed the "lowly" Alejandro if the younger man hadn't been wearing his medallion. He demands to know where Alejandro got the medallion. Alejandro, in a drunken rage, tries to attack Diego and fails about three times in a row (in what is probably one of the most hilarious scenes in the film).

Though Alejandro is a complete mess, for some odd reason (Diego sites "fate"), Diego realizes that he can use Alejandro to exact his revenge and takes the young man under his wing.

Diego grooms Alejandro into a gentleman.

Diego grooms Alejandro into a gentleman.

Diego and Alejandro's relationship is complicated. Diego seems to have real affection for Alejandro. He grooms him, trains him, teaches him, protects him. At the same time, however, he is verbally, physically cruel.

One night, Alejandro returns to the cave where Diego has been training him and announces in excitement that he has reclaimed Diego's black horse. He rants happily about his adventures while Diego listens bitterly.

To Diego, being Zorro was not about adventure or thievery. It was about protecting the people of California. He paid the price for his convictions: his youth, his strength, his entire life was taken from him. And now he must stand in silent witness as a young, handsome, hot-headed clown takes up his mask but doesn't even understand what it means to wear it. Thus, The Mask of Zorro.

Diego snaps at Alejandro, taking all his bitterness and anger out on him. It isn't until Alejandro gets angry that he realizes he is lashing out at one of the peasants of California, one of the very people he gave his life to protect.

Diego is not harming Alejandro on purpose, nor is he deliberately cruel. But he and his perspective are defined by his upbringing. He is an old nobleman who sees Alejandro as a lowly thief, an immature boy not worthy enough to don his mask. And this is why he is so hard on him, snapping him with a whip during training and scolding him for his immature and romantic view of Zorro.

Diego gives his blessing.

Diego gives his blessing.

At the same time, however, Diego loves Alejandro like a son and approves of his love for Elena, even if he worries that said love will distract him from protecting California.

As he dies during the film's final scenes, he takes Alejandro's hand and places it in Elena's. That his adopted son should love his daughter is his final wish.

Alejandro and Elena.

Alejandro and Elena.

The film ends with Alejandro and Elena getting married and having a son, who they name Joaquin after Alejandro's brother (and the real Zorro).

They are living in a lavish house and are wearing nice clothes, so my guess is that Elena, legally being Montero's daughter, inherited his wealth and used it to build a life for her family.

I know I've teased this film in other articles here, but I've always considered it wonderful. It didn't rely on CGI, the cast was excellent, the writing was excellent, the stunts were fun to watch over and over, the romance was sigh-worthy, and the comedy was gold.

I miss films like this.