The 1990s were high times for action movies. Take a quick stroll down memory lane with some of the cinematic gems that dropped in the Year of Our Lord 1998 CE: Rush Hour, Armageddon, US Marshals, Blade, and The Man in the Iron Mask, to name just a few. (There are some turds in the punchbowl, though—looking at you, Godzilla).
The best in that bumper crop of ’98 is a lavish romp through a vibrant New Spain, the delightful The Mask of Zorro. With the film’s recent addition to Netflix, I had a chance to watch it for the first time in years. I was viscerally taken back to 1998, a slack-jawed ten-year-old with eyes glazed over in flamenco-fueled ecstasy at the heroics on screen. To back up my claim, let’s go to the tape, shall we?
The Story is a Pulpy, Passionate Throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age
The romance and derring-do are set against a backdrop of looming war, first during the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, then twenty years later during a fictional plot to create a free and independent Las Californias.
The enigmatic Zorro—the wealthy Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) in disguise—fights for the people of California, defending his fellow Mexicans against the cruelties of their Spanish overlords. Tragedy strikes when his wife is killed and his daughter taken by the dastardly Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), and Zorro is thrown into prison to rot.
Decades later Montero returns to California, and the old de la Vega sees a chance for revenge against Montero. Learning that his long-lost daughter, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), has come with her false “father,” de la Vega escapes from prison to rescue her.
He takes the noble, irascible thief Alejandro Murietta (Antonio Banderas) under his wing, training his protégé in the art of his famous sword and whip.
Will the Zorros defeat the reprehensible Montero and his lieutenant, Captain Love? Will they rescue the lovely Elena from Montero’s clutches? And will they save the thousands of Mexicans being used as slave labor by Montero, digging for gold in the legendary El Dorado to fund his dreams of empire?
Zorro is the Handsome, Mustachioed Cousin of Indiana Jones
The romantic, old-fashioned The Mask of Zorro shares cinematic DNA with the greatest action movie of all time, the 1981 classic Raiders of the Lost Ark. (1999’s excellent The Mummy is another, similar descendent of Raiders, but that’s a story for another article.)
The soaring score by James Horner, the action set pieces, and Antonio Banderas’ sweaty, tangible charisma all evoke the adventures of Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. There are echoes of other Old Hollywood swashbucklers, like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Errol Flynn, in the film as well.
The opening twenty minutes of the film are classic: Don Montero is about to murder innocent civilians in front of an angry crowd before Zorro saves the day, riding his black stallion, Tornado, and making fools of Montero’s goons before carving a Z into Montero’s neck.
The sequence ends with the lasting image of Zorro, brandishing his sword atop a rearing Tornado, the two of them silhouetted against a blazing sun. James Horner’s score hits that classic Zorro theme and the camera lingers on this beautiful shot; it’s as if the movie knows how chill inducing this moment is, and we viewers get to luxuriate in it.
It’s the perfect opening, and it assures us that the makers of The Mask of Zorro have alchemized that same mixture of fisticuffs, sword fighting, humor, and charm that Spielberg perfected in Raiders.
(But for real, the amount of milk strainers in this movie would make Tom Selleck jealous.)
The Spielberg Connection = Cinematic Gold
The legendary director’s fingerprints are all over The Mask of Zorro. Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment started development on the film in the early 1990s, with Spielberg slotted to produce Zorro with an option to direct. Spielberg ended up having no credited connections to the film—keep in mind that all of this occurred during Spielberg’s fevered 1990s peak, littered with classics like Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park—but he was heavily involved in the pre- and post-production of the film.
The director’s chair went first to Mikael Salomon, the cinematographer behind The Abyss and Far and Away, in 1993. Salomon was well into pre-production, even casting Sean Connery in the role of Don Diego de la Vera, the original Zorro, before dropping out in 1995.
Amblin, impressed with the low-budget, high-earning Desperado, offered the film to that movie’s young director, Robert Rodriguez, later the same year. Rodriguez would cast Desperado’s breakout star, Antonio Banderas, as the young Zorro—maybe the most important decision of the production—before dropping out in 1996 over budget arguments.
The financial concerns turned out to be valid, with the film’s cost eventually going almost $10 million over what was budgeted. The female protagonist, the fiery Elena, went to Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was cast by Spielberg himself. Finally Martin Campbell, fresh off the 1995 James Bond reboot GoldenEye, signed on to direct. The role of de la Vega was recast with Anthony Hopkins a month before filming began in early 1997, and the rest is movie history!
Seriously, if you want to sit back and enjoy an old-school action movie, where the good guys are good, the bad guys are really bad, and the romance is thick enough to cut with Zorro’s trusty rapier, The Mask of Zorro is one of the best bets you can take.