Friday, August 12, 2011

Forgotten Books: The Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley

The original, silent version of The Mark of Zorro is one of my favorite films, and the Disney series is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, so it should be no surprise that The Curse of Capistrano (aka The Mark of Zorro) is one of my favorite books. BUT - even without the screen versions, I would still rate this as a great novel.

A short history: The novel The Curse of Capistrano ran as a five-part serial in All-Story Weekly (the mag that later became Argosy) beginning August 9, 1919. Douglas Fairbanks thought it was so cool he bought the screen rights and released the pic, titled The Mark of Zorro, in 1920. The first appearance in book form, a Grosset & Dunlap photoplay edition (also issued in 1920), used the movie title, as have most editions since.

As always when reading McCulley, I was struck by how well his prose stands the test of time. After 90 years, it’s still fresh - and snappier than a lot of stuff being written today.

I've read this book at least twice, but it's been a while, and there were several interesting points I’d forgotten.

First, it has none of that jazz about Diego learning his letters - and swordsmanship - in Spain, and returning to California when summoned by his father. Instead, we learn that he practiced in secret at home, preparing for the day his fighting skills might be needed. (Don’t know when that Spanish angle crept into the mythos, but it would be interesting to find out.)

Anyway, the story starts with Zorro’s wrongrighting career already underway. It’s said he made his debut in San Juan Capistrano, a mission town a short distance south of Los Angeles, where he raised quite a ruckus - hence the nickname “The Curse of Capistrano.” So as this book opens, he’s already a legend, and the corrupt governor and his soldiers are hot to catch him.

Next, I was surprised (once again, no doubt) that we never see Diego changing into Zorro or vice versa. In fact, though it’s pretty obvious, the reader doesn’t officially learn they are the same person until the last chapter. That called for some very clever plotting by McCulley.

Then there’s the issue of Zorro’s mask. In this story it must be rolled up from the bottom whenever he wants to uncork a kiss on his favorite senorita. This sort of implies it could be one that just hangs down over his face (as depicted on the cover of All-Story, and later in West magazine illos). But that wouldn’t be practical for swordfighting or riding a horse, so it’s hard to say what McCulley really had in mind. It’s clear, though, that it’s not the pirate do-rag thing worn by Doug Fairbanks and his screen successors.

Here’s a shocker: Zorro wears a purple cape. Probably not exactly the color of Barney the dinosaur, but it’s still hard to picture him in anything but basic black.

In the end (yep, this a SPOILER ALERT), Zorro removes the mask and reveals his Diego identity to the whole pueblo. Zorro, he says, will no longer be needed.

And this brings us to the final surprise, that Zorro was not merely a disguise for Diego, but a whole ‘nother side of him. Diego’s listlessness and foppery was not just a pose, but the real deal. Yep, there’s a split personality thing going on, and Diego (for Zorro is no more) admits he’ll have to work hard to incorporate some of Zorro’s bold and romantic character into his own. Surprisingly, his bride-to-be, who has fallen for Zorro and not Diego, does not seem alarmed by this development.

I’m now reading the sequel, The Further Adventures of Zorro (aka The Sword of Zorro) from 1922, and it’s interesting to see how McCulley brought him out of retirement. More on that in a future edition of Forgotten Books.

P.S. This book is available for free download on the web, but the version I found was teeming with atrocious typos. I have since acquired a much better version in Word, and will be pleased to send it to anyone who asks. It should work great on your Kindle (or non-Kindle). Write me at and I’ll shoot you a copy.

This week's Forgotten Books round-up is brought to you over at Sweet Freedom.

P.S. Don't miss the FIRST Forgotten Book post by my fellow critique groupee Doug Levin, over at Levin at Large. It features Dead Skip by Joe Gores.


Deka Black said...

The Spain turn in the story is interesting. Maybe have some to do with later movies?

George said...

You can never go wrong with Zorro. I watched THE MASK OF ZORRO the other night.

Anonymous said...

Don't hold me to it, but I'd thought the went-to-Spain, learned-the-sword thing was a revision included by McCulley himself in one of the much pater (there were, what, 60-some?) stories to explain his high level of skill. Or it may have been that we went to Monterey and studied from a master from Spain, I can't exactly recall.

I do know that Zorro by Isabel Allende has at least a third of the book devoted to his trip to and time in Spain, studying under a master and getting into political trouble. I did get this in print but have yet to read it.

Evan Lewis said...

It's possible McCulley introduced the Spain thing at some point. I have all the novels and stories, but have just started working my way through the complete works. If McCulley did invent the Spain trip, he was contradicting the backstory told in this book.

I'm pretty sure the Spain story was used in the 1940 Tyrone Power version of The Mark of Zorro, but don't know if that was the first time.

As for the Allende book . . . it's an interesting take on the legend and the character. BUT, while it's a thoughtful book, it's nowhere near as fun as this one. Allende can write, but she CAN'T write adventure. What bothered me most about her version was all that nonsense about Diego's mother being an Indian and he and Bernardo being "milk brothers." Revisionist crap.

J F Norris said...

"Surprisingly, his bride-to-be, who has fallen for Zorro and not Diego, does not seem alarmed by this development."

That's real love, my friend. She fell for the man's soul and trusts all that rugged machismo is still in there somewhere. God love her for sticking with the fop.

I'm so glad his name was never translated. Somehow The Mask of the Fox just doesn't cut it.

Martin OHearn said...

A sidelight is that the Curse of Capistrano in the original title is Zorro himself, just as Superman is the Man of Steel and Batman the Caped Crusader.

Todd Mason said...

I'll note that my own name translated from English into Spanish is Zorro Conde Albañil

(the middle one's Earl)

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree with you on the Allende book.

Deka Black said...

Todd, as a Spain citizen, i must say that's a pretty badass name!

Zorro, Conde de Albañil y Roque said...

Gracias, Deka.

Evan Lewis said...

Wow. A comment from Zorro himself. Too cool.

Deka Black said...

You're welcome. Mr. Count

David Cranmer said...

Love this story. Read and seen it many, many times.

Great post, Evan. I hope others discover it now as well.

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