With a name like Don Q Son of Zorro, this 1925 sequel to the great 1920 silent swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro may not initially inspire the viewer with confidence — even if, like the original, it does star Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
If so, that’s a pity, because Don Q Son of Zorro, named one of the year’s ten best films by The New York Times, actually outdoes its predecessor, with a stronger and more sophisticated plot, better pacing, more interesting and complex characterizations, grander production values and set design, and more consistent action.
This isn’t to take anything away from The Mark of Zorro, which was made five years earlier (a significant span of time in those early days of film) and on a smaller budget. Still, Fairbanks set out to surpass his earlier film, and in general he succeeded.
The Mark of Zorro, set in 1830s California, was a proto-superhero Western, with a lone champion bringing justice to a lawless jurisdiction. Son of Zorro, set in Madrid, is closer in spirit to Dumas’ continental swashbucklers, with palace intrigues, international diplomatic complications, duels over accidental affronts, public-house ambushes, and a canvas of decades and continents.
Fairbanks plays dual roles, reprising the part of the now-older Don Diego while also starring as Don Cesar de Vega, the son of Don Diego and Lolita. Like his father before him, Cesar has returned to Spain for his education. Besides his father’s looks, the younger de Vega has the old man’s sense of honor and fair play, not to mention his skill with a blade — though Cesar’s weapon of choice is a Californian whip.
Fairbanks’ precision with the whip puts Indiana Jones to shame. He knocks cigarettes out of people’s lips, slices a sheet of paper to ribbons at fifteen paces — or behind his own back — and extinguishes a candle flame without damaging the candle. And that’s just for fun; he also uses it to swing from parapets and knock opponents off their feet before they can come within sword-reach.
Don Cesar’s flamboyant style and skills make him popular with his fellow students; but, like brash young D’Artagnan inadvertently offending each of the Three Musketeers, the youthful Californian soon runs afoul of a potentially dangerous enemy in uniform: Don Sebastian (Donald Crisp, who also directed), an officer of the Queen’s guard.
Fortunately for Cesar, he’s also attracted the mercurial attention of Archduke Paul of Austria (Warner Oland), cousin to the Queen of Spain (Stella de Lanti), an impulsive, middle-aged aristocrat eager for diversion and excitement. This makes Cesar useful to the Queen — yet Sebastian is charged with the Archduke’s safety, forcing Cesar and Sebastian to endure one another. Matters are further complicated when the two young men become interested in the same lovely woman, Dolores de Muro (Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon), daughter of the respected General de Muro (Jack McDonald).
So far Don Cesare’s life in Spain has been a bit of a lark, without the urgency of events in The Mark of Zorro (though there are parallels to the earlier film, such as the hero’s rivalry with a captain for the heroine’s affections). Then, however, a startling series of events raises the stakes for all concerned, and the story takes a far more serious turn. Cesar’s skills and resourcefulness are put to the test in earnest, while back in California the elder de Vega receives dire news that causes him to think back to that day thirty years earlier, in the final moments of the previous film, when he flung away his blade with the words, "Till I need you again!"
The film’s climax, a rousing battle sequence reuniting father and son against an army of adversaries, is more thrilling and larger in scope than anything in The Mark of Zorro. Still, for sheer acrobatic swashbuckling flair, nothing in Son of Zorro approaches the astonishing last reel from the earlier film. As Cesar, Fairbanks swings onto walls, briefly plays matador to a runaway bull, jumps through windows, and even dances the fandango — but the best stunts in Mark of Zorro remain unparalleled.
Another respect in which the first film distinguishes itself is its positive depiction of Zorro’s Catholic milieu. Religious themes aren’t a factor in the sequel, nor are the moral themes of fighting against oppression and defending the poor.
Finally, two comments about the film’s slightly ungainly title. First, "Don Q" is a name Cesar uses exactly once, so it seems odd that it’s given such prominence in the title. (Perhaps it had more significance in the original novel by Kate and Hesketh Prichard, Don Q’s Love Story, about which I know absolutely nothing, not even whether it had anything to do with Zorro.)
Second, while Cesar is literally the "son of Zorro," and while he does adopt some of his father’s tactics and assumes a number of identities, he never has occasion to don a mask, so Son of Zorro is not a "next-generation" Zorro story. Instead, it’s the elder de Vega who finally reassumes his masked persona — though he too has no reason to hide his identity, and anyway everyone now knows who Zorro was, so it’s not quite clear what the point of the mask is. (Perhaps to proclaim his identity? To intimidate his adversaries? To help psych himself for taking on an army of men half his age?)
Whatever. Don Q Son of Zorro is rousing entertainment, and a terrific companion piece to The Mark of Zorro.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.