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The Mask of Zorro

This article refers to the 1998 film. The last Zorro story written by the character's creator, Johnston McCulley, originated this title.

The Mask of Zorro is a 1998 action film directed by Martin Campbell, and stars Antonio Banderas with Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Stuart Wilson. In over 80 years since the creation of the Spanish masked swordsman, Banderas was the first Spanish actor to ever portray Zorro, although his character is not Spanish but a Mexican-born Californian. Hopkins portrayed the original Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega who was popularized by Guy Williams on the Disney TV series, Zorro.

This epic, filmed in Mexico and Orlando, Florida, was both a box office success and critically acclaimed. The Legend of Zorro, a sequel also starring Banderas, Zeta-Jones and directed by Campbell, was released in 2005, but is largely considered inferior to the original.

Plot summary

In 1821, the Mexican Army is on the verge of liberating its country from Spanish colonial rule. In the area of present-day California, the cruel and ruthless Spanish Governor, Don Rafael Montero is about to be overthrown. In a last ditch effort to trap his arch-nemesis, the masked swordsman Zorro, Montero lays a trap by condemning three innocent men to death. Zorro arrives and begins fighting the guards, not noticing an extra contingent awaiting him on a nearby balcony. The trap is thwarted with assistance from two orphan brothers, Joaquin and Alejandro Murrieta, whereupon Zorro rewards Joaquin with a medal he is wearing. Zorro then lands in front of Montero and cuts a "Z" into his neck as a reminder to never return to California. Calling his faithful black stallion, Toronado, Zorro rides up into the sunset and waves his sword into the sky in front of the cheering populace. However, from their final confrontation, Montero is able to surmise that Zorro is really a nobleman, and most likely Don Diego de la Vega, a Spanish noble living in California whom the Governor had always disliked, due to his unrequited love for Diego's wife Esperanza. Montero confronts him at his home later that evening, and proves Diego is Zorro by finding and aggravating a wound inflicted on Zorro in the attempt to trap him. Attempting to arrest him, a fight ensues, during which Esperanza is killed, Diego's house is burned and his infant daughter, Eléna, is taken to Spain by Montero to be raised as his own.

Twenty years later, Montero returns to California and comes to a notorious jail housing forgotten prisoners from the Spanish era, looking for Diego. Although he is there, Montero does not recognize him. Diego then seizes an opportunity to escape, intent on killing Montero at the first possible chance, but retreats when he sees Montero has brought with him Eléna, now a beautiful young lady who very much resembles Esperanza. She arrives on the shores of California for what she believes is the first time and is presented with a bouquet of local flowers. She recognizes the scent and asks for the name of the flowers. Montero's old friend, Don Luiz, tells her it is romagna, but that they only grow in California. Later, while walking in a local market, Eléna meets a woman who claims to have been her nanny and that she used to hang flowers on her crib. Eléna tells her that she must be mistaken, but the elderly woman disagrees, saying that she could never forget the daughter of Diego and Esperanza de la Vega.

Diego soon encounters an adult Alejandro Murrieta, whom he recognizes by the medal he awarded Joaquin. He has grown up to be a drunken, clumsy bandit, bitter over the recent murder of his brother by a sadistic (and partially psychotic) Texian Army Captain, Harrison Love. Diego recruits and trains Alejandro to become his successor. After becoming a better swordsman, Alejandro, dressed in a make-shift Zorro costume, goes out to steal a black stallion that resembles the original Zorro's horse, Toronado. On his way to the inn where the horse is stabled, Alejandro runs in to Eléna and is struck by her beauty. After successfully stealing the horse, and blowing up most of the inn with gunpowder in the process, Alejandro hides in a local church, where the priest Father Felipe, who was once the guardian of Joaquin and Alejandro, joyfully embraces his 'old friend' Zorro. Alejandro hides in the confessional, where Eléna is waiting to speak to the priest. Alejandro pretends to take her confession, while really learning more about her. He then escapes through the roof and rides back to Zorro's lair on his stolen black stallion. Diego scolds Alejandro for taking the horse; he claims that Zorro was a servant of the people, not a thief. Diego also tells Alejandro that, to enter Montero's world, he must have charm, be a gentleman and gain Montero's trust. They both agree that this project "is going to take a lot of work."

Posing as a visiting Spanish nobleman, with Diego as his servant, Alejandro infiltrates Montero's inner circle. He sees the beautiful Elena again and surprises her with a small red rose. Later Elena comes to Alejandro's table and asks him to come and sit with Montero. At the table, the group talks about the 'legendary bandit' Zorro. Later, Captain Love asks Elena to dance with him, she agrees. Their dance is soon interrupted by Alejandro who tells Captain Love to get back to Montero. He dances with Elena and asks her to do something more robust. The two do a traditional Spanish tango. Diego sees them dancing and is happy because he knows that Alejandro would be a perfect match for Elena, while Montero does not think so, he wants Elena to be with Captain Love. However, Montero is convinced to let Alejandro into his inner circle and asks him to stay after the party to see a 'vision'. Alejandro learns that Montero has been operating a secret gold mine he has dubbed El Dorado with the aid of Captain Love, using peasants and petty criminals as slave labor. His goal is to buy California from Mexico (using gold that really already belongs to Mexico) and establish himself as California's leader. Diego uses this opportunity to become closer to Eléna, though he identifies himself as "Bernardo" the servant (a homage to the name of Zorro's mute sidekick from the original story).

Diego then allows Alejandro to wear the real mask of Zorro (along with the rest of the costume) and sends him to Montero's mansion to steal the map leading to the gold mine. At the mansion, Zorro succeeds in stealing the map and also duels and fights off Montero, Captain Love, and all of the guards. As he escapes to the stable, he is confronted by Eléna, who attempts to retrieve the map belonging to her "father." They engage in a sword fight, and Eléna shows her own skill with a sword. She disarms Zorro and forces him back. But Zorro manages to retrieve Eléna's own sword and cuts off her bodice, leaving her topless and in nothing but her underwear. She tries to cover her breasts with Zorro's hat but she soon finds herself in his arms. They kiss for a moment, her attraction grows and she leans in for more, but Zorro steps back, takes back his hat, bids her goodbye, and proceeds outside. Montero and his soldiers enter the stable, and Montero observes his daughter's state. Zorro is then pursued by Montero's soldiers as he makes his escape, but he knocks all the soldiers off their horses and escapes on his horse, the new Toronado.

Together, Diego and Alejandro use the stolen map to locate the mine, in order to save those working there before Montero and Captain Love can "destroy all the evidence". However, Diego refuses to go with Alejandro; he has other business to finish. Alejandro realizes that Eléna is Diego's daughter and that he intends to kill Montero in revenge. Feeling betrayed, Alejandro denounces Diego for his selfishness and departs.

While Alejandro/Zorro sets off to save the mine workers, Diego heads to Montero's mansion to confront his old nemesis. At last, Montero recognizes Diego and realizes the identity of the new Zorro. Montero believes that Diego has come to punish him for the illegal mine, but his confident manner fades when Diego, with a sword to Montero's neck, orders him to call for Eléna. Eléna comes down to see her 'father' apparently being held hostage by a man she has only known as a servant. Eléna recognises the name Diego de la Vega and asks the two men what flowers used to hang on her crib. Montero then holds a gun to Diego's head and says he would shoot him even in front of his own daughter, forcing him to stand down. As he is lead away by guards, Diego turns to Eléna and tells her that the flowers were romagna. This convinces Eléna that she is possibly his daughter rather than Montero's, and she later helps him escape. They then head to the mine to assist Alejandro.

At the mine, Zorro encounters Captain Love as he is trying to transfer the gold. Zorro defeats the guards and then engages Love, as an unseen Montero prepares to shoot him from a distance. However, Diego arrives at the last moment and knocks Montero's shot off balance, before engaging him by the sword. After disarming Montero, Diego is free to kill him, but Eléna appeals for him to stop. Montero then takes Eléna hostage with a gun to make Diego drop his sword, which he does. Montero then shoots Diego, seriously wounding him, but he is able to continue to fight.

In the end, Zorro impales Love with the Captain's own sword, while Diego sends Montero off a cliff, dragged by a moving cart of gold, which crushes him and Love, killing them both. Eléna frees the captive workers before explosives set by Love to wipe out the evidence of the mine can go off. Zorro helps Eléna free the slaves just as the mine is destroyed by a spectacular explosion. Diego, whose gunshot wound is mortal, makes peace with Alejandro and endorses him as the next Zorro, encouraging a union between him and Eléna, who finally accepts him as her father. Diego informs his daughter that she is exactly like her mother: same mouth, eyes, spirit, and a Zorro who loves her. He dies in their arms and is given a grand funeral. Alejandro and Eléna marry and rebuilt the de la Vega family mansion and have a son whom they name Joaquin, in honor of Alejandro's brother, and Zorro returns as the defender of the People of California.

Famous scenes

The undressing of Eléna

The one moment that captured all the advertising and viewer's attention: When Eléna (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is undressed by the slashing sword of Mexican thief Alejandro Murrieta/Zorro (Antonio Banderas); the view of her opened dress caused his sword blade to pop up, followed by his taking her for a sensuous kiss. The scene has been called one of the most erotic film moments of the 1990s. In fact, both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas have admitted to sexual arousal during the filming of this scene, Banderas being aroused by Zeta-Jones's beauty, and Zeta-Jones being aroused by the very fact that Banderas could strip her by using only his sword and not his hands.

Main Cast

Character Actor/Actress
Alejandro Murrieta/Zorro Antonio Banderas
Don Diego De La Vega/Zorro Anthony Hopkins
Eléna (De La Vega) Montero Catherine Zeta-Jones
Don Rafael Montero Stuart Wilson
Captain Harrison Love Matt Letscher
Don Luiz Tony Amendola
Don Pedro Pedro Armendáriz
Father Felipe William Marquez
Corporal Armando Garcia Jose Perez

Historical and cultural references

The Mask of Zorro, like its sequel The Legend of Zorro, weaves several historical figures and incidents into its narrative. Alejandro is the fictional brother of Joaquin Murrieta, a Mexican outlaw killed by California State Ranger Harry Love, portrayed here as Texas Army Captain "Harrison Love", in 1853. (The film takes place more than a decade earlier.) Similarly, there is a character called Three Fingered Jack although the real person was a Mexican named Manuel Garcia rather than an Anglo-American. The opening sequence is set during the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence, and a war between the United States and Mexico is alluded to. Too early to be the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, this may refer to the Republic of Texas' continual conflicts with Mexico. Alejandro tells Montero that he came to California via Paris, Lisbon, and San Francisco, though in 1841, San Francisco was still Yerba Buena. (The name change didn't occur until January 1847.) An original ending on the DVD includes an appearance by Antonio López de Santa Anna, who appears familiar with the Zorro legend, and Montero's plot concerning Californian gold (and its climactic concealment) foreshadows the California Gold Rush.

Diego uses the name Bernardo when posing as the new Zorro's servant. In numerous Zorro books, Diego had a mute servant (later re-imagined in Isabel Allende's Zorro: A Novel as an equal) named Bernardo. Both Zorros conceal their costume under a priest's robes, a tactic used in numerous Zorro-related works. Diego's hacienda has a secret passage in a walk-in fireplace, which has also appeared in previous films. Esperanza de la Vega, Diego's wife, is not Lolita Pulido, the first woman he married, though Esperanza is alluded to in the epilogue of Allende's novel. Allende would continue the Campbell-directed Zorro films' practice of portraying historical figures interacting with fictional protagonists in her novel.

The Zorro silhouette that bookends the film, as well as the action-packed opening scene, recall popular James Bond film structures. (The Mask of Zorro's director Campbell had directed 1995's GoldenEye, the first Bond film starring Pierce Brosnan, and would later direct 2006's Casino Royale, which did the same for Daniel Craig; Campbell performed a similar service for Antonio Banderas in this film.)

Critical reaction

Critical reaction to The Mask of Zorro has been mostly positive. The film currently holds an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a rating of 63 out of 100 on Metacritic.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times praised the film, awarding it three stars (out of four) and calling it "a display of traditional movie craftsmanship, especially at the level of the screenplay, which respects the characters and story and doesn't simply use them for dialogue breaks between action sequences. Ebert later called The Mask of Zorro "probably the best Zorro movie ever made.

James Berardinelli of ReelViews also gave the film three stars, saying that it features "a great deal of excitement and adventure, all brought to the screen by using a somewhat irreverent tone that keeps the mood light without trivializing the characters. Todd McCarthy of Variety said that "the return of the legendary swordsman is well served by a grandly mounted production in the classical style.

Scott Tobias of The Onion's A.V. Club said The Mask of Zorro "delivers the goods", "coasting on the charisma of its stars and a few exciting action setpieces". Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said that the film is "the kind of pleasant entertainment that allows the paying customers to have as much fun as the people on screen.

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave The Mask of Zorro a lukewarm review, calling it a "lavishly produced swashbuckler" but felt that it "should have been far more entertaining. Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune agreed, saying that the film is "spectacular, fast, [and] never boring, [but] also one of the more disappointing movies I've seen recently.


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