Sitting down in front of the TV and putting in the DVD, I did not expect much from The Mask of Zorro. But I needed something to write about with regards to Campbell’s monomyth, and this was the movie that sprang to mind when I thought “hero.” A formative adventure for me as a child, it was not likely to hold up under my more experienced eye, all these years later. I was expecting some romantic, swashbuckling fluff, something that would welcome my nostalgia while providing a few moments that would make me laugh at my younger self for enjoying them. Two hours and fifteen minutes later, I decided to write a somewhat different kind of essay.
Let me tell you why The Mask of Zorro is one of the greatest adventure films of all time.
The Mask of Zorro began its development as early as 1992, six years before its eventual release date. The film experienced problems early and often, shuffling through endless screenwriters, producers, and directors signed on to the project. When it finally went forward with Martin Campbell as director in 1997, delays, rewrites, and budgetary issues immediately swarmed the film. So how did this movie, looking every bit like the definition of a troubled production, end up being so good?
Well, there are a lot of reasons, but I’ve only got time to tell you about one. So I’m not going to talk about the fencing choreographed by the legendary Bob Anderson. I’m not going to talk about Campbell’s smart, functional directing that allows the action to be both legible and exhilarating. I’m not going to talk about Graciela Mazón, who almost singlehandedly designed and made the stunning costumes (well, not much). I’m not going to talk about the delightful score by the late, great James Horner. I’m not even going to talk about the deeply affecting chemistry between the actors.
The strength of this film comes from the motivation of its main characters, and the best example comes in an oft-overlooked step in the hero’s journey.
More specifically, it comes from the conflict of these motivations. The Mask of Zorro is a tale of revenge and romance. It follows two men, Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas) and Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins), as they try to save the people of California from Don Rafael Montero, the tyrannical former governor of the region. They do this for heroic reasons, to serve and save their people, but they also do it for personal ones. Montero threw Diego in jail and stole his infant daughter from him, and Montero’s right-hand man (Captain Harrison Love) killed Alejandro’s brother. Each man flirts with the idea of abandoning all caution and stabbing their hated adversary in the street, but each finds a better way to achieve his goal: Zorro, a legendary freedom fighter, Diego’s former alter ego, and now Alejandro’s.
Soon after his brother has been caught and killed, we find Alejandro, the protagonist of the film, drunk in the street and ready to attack Harrison Love in the open. This is a terrible idea, as Love will have no trouble killing an unskilled drunk. Alejandro cannot begin his adventure, cannot become Zorro, if Captain Love shoots him during a bender. But Diego, the man who was once Zorro, happens upon Alejandro before he attacks, and stops him. This moment, Diego saving Alejandro from getting himself killed so that he can train him to become the new Zorro, is actually the film’s call to adventure.
In Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the “call to adventure” typically beckons the hero away from a drab existence towards a world of danger and excitement. But Alejandro already lives in a world of danger. Alejandro is a bandit, a fictional brother of the real Joaquín Murrieta (on whom the original Zorro stories were based). By the time Alejandro meets his mentor, Diego, we have already seen Alejandro attack and rob a heavily guarded outpost.
Thus, when Alejandro initially refuses the call, it is not out of fear; it is out of a deeply felt contrary motivation. So often, the hero of an adventure refuses the call because of some mundane concern—the hero believes they couldn’t possibly be whatever wizard/Jedi/chosen one they’re supposed to be, or the hero is frightened by the world of adventure. These concerns aren’t particularly interesting on a dramatic level, and they’re pretty easy to push aside.
Alejandro does not doubt that he can become Zorro and he does not fear violence or peril. He refuses the call to adventure because his desire to avenge his brother’s death is stronger than his desire to become a hero. Diego has to convince him (forcefully) that he is not skilled enough to take his revenge before Alejandro will consider training under him. Alejandro’s desire for revenge is so immediate, so pressing, that he must be physically subdued for him to think of any other path. The two men fight, a brief duel that ends in total embarrassment for Alejandro, beaten by a “crippled old man” with a walking stick.
This fight sets up a dynamic for the rest of the movie. Alejandro constantly has to choose between two paths: the personal one that offers emotional satisfaction, and the logical one that offers greater benefits in the long run. Alejandro is continually presented with temptations (occasionally but not exclusively in the form of a woman) that might gratify him in the short run but would be no help later, and from the very first training session, it is clear where Diego stands on the matter:
“Lesson number one: never attack in anger.”
The impulsive, emotional choice is nearly always inferior, and after an early mishap in which he attacks a barracks for no reason other than to playact as Zorro, Alejandro learns this lesson. He returns to Zorro’s cave from this escapade triumphant, only to be rebuked by Diego. “Zorro was a servant of the people, he was not a seeker of fame like you. Buffoon.”
This remark provokes fury from Alejandro, who threatens to leave, once again demonstrating his willingness to refuse the call if his passion for revenge is not taken seriously. Refusing the call is usually a mere formality, a stepping-stone before the bygone conclusion that the hero will of course choose to continue on his journey. Using these very real emotional stakes, The Mask of Zorro puts doubt in that conclusion, and by doing so makes the refusal of the call to adventure dramatically engaging. Not only that, it sets up an internal conflict—the satisfying personal choice vs. the smarter, harder one—that will be re-examined throughout the entire film. This is structural screenwriting at its best, and the fact that it appears in a script that was endlessly rewritten by multiple hands is nothing short of miraculous.
Diego convinces Alejandro to stay with him by telling him about an upcoming party that Montero is hosting. To infiltrate the belly of this whale, Diego must teach Alejandro the final piece of Zorro’s identity: charm. Alejandro arrives at the party looking nothing like his old self, and throughout the party he manages to keep his emotions in check. He limits himself to making jokes at Captain Love’s expense, and despite sharing a passionate dance with Elena—Diego’s daughter whom Montero raised—he snubs her to gain favor with Montero (though he grimaces as she leaves in a huff).
Alejandro plays every card he can, even promising Montero imaginary aid in the Spanish court, putting his personal feelings aside until he learns Montero’s plan: a gold mine, for which Montero enslaves the citizenry to exploit. The sight shocks and angers Alejandro, especially as he watches an old bandit friend of his die in the mine. But again, Alejandro barely keeps his rage in check. Despite his restraint, Alejandro arouses the suspicion of Captain Love, who shows the newcomer his brother Joaquín’s head, kept in a jar of brandy (something the historical Captain Love really did). Alejandro somehow hides his anger, and Love allows him to leave, his suspicions unconfirmed.
These scenes would be dramatic enough without knowing about Alejandro’s inner struggle, but knowing how passionate Alejandro is doubles the tension for the audience. We know that he can fly off the handle, that he can make mistakes out of passion, and these scenes are rich in suspense because we therefore know how difficult they are for him. Alone with Diego, Alejandro expresses his frustration in a way that also shows that he realizes the importance of the greater mission: he chastises himself for thinking of Captain Love while the workers in the mine suffer and die. Trying to put aside his desire for revenge, he asks Diego:
“How can I do what is needed when all I feel is… hate?”
Alejandro finally understands the necessity of Zorro’s mission on an emotional level. He no longer sees the path to his revenge and the path of Zorro as a conflict between his personal desires and the greater good—he feels, and is thus driven to accomplish, both of them. He is thus finally ready to become a hero. Diego responds to his question: “You hide it. With this.” And with that, Diego gives Alejandro the mask of Zorro.
What follows is perhaps the most exhilarating sequence in the entire film, in which Alejandro sneaks into Montero’s mansion and escapes with the map to the mine. Alejandro no longer playacts as Zorro, he is Zorro. His personal desires are no longer a hindrance—they are instead married to the larger mission, and it is no coincidence that this marriage brings the film’s most thrilling scenes.
This is not to say that Alejandro has now been subsumed into Zorro’s larger identity. Alejandro brings his own unique flair to Zorro, reflected in the slight alterations of Zorro’s costume. Mazón described Diego’s Zorro costume as very Spanish, while Alejandro’s was inspired by traditional Mexican outfits. We can see a difference in the way Alejandro fights, too, as he defeats hardly any of his opponents through superior swordplay. Alejandro is a cunning bandit who finds a way to win any fight—he is not above using punches, kicks, his environment, or even kisses to his advantage. It’s a perfect fit, as zorro means “fox,” and it is the melding of these two identities, the selfish bandit and the self-sacrificing hero, that provide the best moments.
Alejandro has learned his lesson not to focus on his personal desire above the good of the people, but the irony is that his teacher did not. Before the final confrontation, Diego leaves to attack Montero in his home rather than help Alejandro save the miners. He fails, but he manages to convince Elena of the truth of her heritage, and so they end up at the mine to help Alejandro anyway.
Diego broke his first rule and his attack fails, but without him acting out on his emotions, Elena never would have come with him to the mine, and without both of them, Alejandro would not have succeeded in stopping the deaths of the miners. The film demonstrates, over and over, the folly of acting impulsively and emotionally, but it also knows how important emotion is to its characters and its audience. Stories cannot resonate and characters cannot grow without emotion.
Alejandro ends the film the master of two worlds, specifically his two identities. To get there, he had to learn not to let his feelings rule him. This internal conflict, which is only resolved when Alejandro finally becomes the hero he was meant to be, is begun in a step of Campbell’s hero’s journey that most stories do their best to ignore. Capitalizing on small moments like these and using them to snowball into larger themes is what great stories do. The Mask of Zorro was a critical and commercial hit, but after two decades and a terrible sequel, the world has largely forgotten it. Do yourself a favor and watch this gem, and hope that the next time you want to throw your life away on fruitless vengeance, there’s a wise Anthony Hopkins there to hit you with a cane.