Friday, 20 May 2016

Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939)

There are those who claim that Zorro’s Fighting Legion is the best of all movie adventure serials. I don’t agree but this 1939 Republic serial is still worth a watch.

Zorro was created by pulp writer Johnston McCulley and made his debut in print in the novel The Curse of Capistrano, serialised in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919. It was published in book form under the title The Mark of Zorro after the immense success of  the 1920 feature film with that title starring Douglas Fairbanks. McCulley went on to write another sixty or so Zorro stories.

The serial makes several quite significant changes to McCulley’s original creation, most of these changes being (in my opinion) ill-advised. One of the most refreshing and original  things about the Zorro stories is their setting - California in the 1820s during the period when it was a territory under Mexican rule. The serial is set, less interestingly, in Mexico itself. Zorro is in reality nobleman Don Diego Vega. Don Diego pretends to be a rather ridiculous figure - excessively bookish, extremely foppish and thoroughly indolent. He is such an absurd figure that no-one takes him seriously, which is of course his intention. In reality he is a master swordsman, a fine shot with a pistol and a magnificent horseman. As depicted in the serial Don Diego is still rather foppish but at times he comes across as being a bit too sensible and serious - he’s not quite ridiculous enough to convince us that no-one would see through his deception.

The other major change is that the Indians are on the side of the bad guys in the serial (although arguably they’re being manipulated by the real bad guys and so are not actual bad guys) whereas in McCulley’s stories Zorro is very sympathetic indeed to the Indians. In fact Zorro is very much the champion of the poor and the oppressed, regardless of race. This crucial aspect of the Zorro character is much weakened in Zorro’s Fighting Legion - Zorro is certainly portrayed as being a good guy but he is fighting for the Mexican government rather than directly for the oppressed.

These changes dilute the unique flavour of Zorro and turn the serial into more of a straightforward western. 

Having said all this there’s still a great deal to enjoy here.

William Witney and John English directed and the appearance of their names on the credits of a Republic serial was always a good sign. You knew the action scenes would be plentiful, imaginative and skillfully executed and that the cliffhanger endings would be top-notch and the hero’s narrow escapes at least reasonably plausible. All these virtues are very much in evidence here.

The story is reasonably interesting. A faction is plotting to overthrow the Mexican government and part of their strategy is to disrupt the shipment of gold from the mines in San Bendolito province, shipments on which the government is absolutely dependent. To further this nefarious scheme the conspirators are making use of the Yaqui Indians, convincing them that the legendary Don Del Oro, a kind of god/superman, will lead them to victory and freedom.

The oddest element in the story is that Zorro is no longer a solitary masked crusader - he is now the leader of the Legion, a large band of loyal well-armed followers.

Production values are adequate by serial standards. One gets the impression that most of the money was spent on making the action sequences convincing. This was certainly a sensible approach - any serial stands or falls on the quality of its action scenes.

Don Del Oro himself is fun, being a man inside a kind of golden suit of armour and looking rather robotic.

Reed Hadley’s performance as Zorro/Don Diego is a highlight. Even if he doesn’t always quite manage to make Don Diego sufficiently indolent and foolish he is certainly entertaining and he does have the charisma to make him an excellent Zorro.

This serial has had quite a few DVD releases. Unfortunately, as is the case with most serials, no-one has ever thought it worth the expense of doing a proper restoration so picture quality tends to be a little dubious. My copy is the Alpha Video release and picture quality is most definitely dubious although admittedly that’s compensated for to some extent by the very low price. 

Zorro’s Fighting Legion is not quite up to the standards of the very best Republic serials like Spy Smasher but it is consistently entertaining and exciting. Highly recommended.

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