Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Zorro, the Curse of Capistrano

The archetype of the avenging swashbuckler is a very old one. Ballads of Robin Hood go back to the 15th century, and there were certainly others before him... Characters of great daring and great romance who rob from the rich and give to the poor, and otherwise seek to right wrongs and fight injustice against which others are cowardly or impotent. The legacy of the swashbuckler has distilled into the modern superhero, the Captain Americas and Batmans who fight the fight that properly constituted authority cannot (in fact, Captain America lately seems to spend more time fighting government institutions than being one). Though the swashbuckler archetype is an old one, some of its most popular and well-known manifestations are not as old as some might think. The lineage of Batman - the dilettante whose secret identity is the mask - goes back at least to Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel, the 1905 novel set in Revolutionary France. His more direct ancestor is Johnston McCulley's black-clad avenger of Alta California, Señor Zorro, who was created in 1919. Zorro was such a smash success that Douglas Fairbanks immediately scooped up the movie rights, and it was that 1920 film that a young Bruce Wayne and his family saw on that fateful night.

Originally published in the pulp magazine All-Story, The Curse of Capistrano introduced Zorro and his alter-ego Don Diego de la Vega to the world. While the various assorted swashbucklers of the past had their romantic appeal, Musketeers and Pimpernels working for the benefit of European aristocracies was a bit of a hard sell in the United States. Zorro was the first true, homegrown version of the archetype. Zorro was not an agent of Alta California's governor or the Mexican authorities. Unlike Disney's later adaptation, there was no recourse to any just form of higher authority whatsoever. In McCulley's California, the corruption goes all the way to the governor himself. Capitán Ramon and his cronies were merely vultures at the scraps, using their position to exploit what the governor himself had overlooked in a pervasive culture of injustice. Zorro instead stood as a man among men, fighting against the corrupt system for the benefit of Natives, Franciscan missions, and the unfairly persecuted, eventually uniting to himself a militia of gentry to confront the governor. The Curse of Capistrano could very well be taken as a veiled recapitulation of the American Revolution.

A few problems arise in this narrative in the same sense that these problems arose in the real American Revolution. For one, Don Diego de la Vega is a caballero, the heir to a wealthy rancho, with the Old Blood flowing through his veins. Like the relatively affluent and positioned men who thrust the 13 Colonies into a revolution because they didn't like the idea of paying taxes to England or being prohibited from simply taking Native lands for themselves, he is a the closest thing to an aristocrat in the region, who is fighting for the people whose oppression made his wealth possible. In historical fact, the great ranchos of Alta California were built on lands and Native labour forcibly separated from the Franciscan missions. Even then, the ranchos weren't so great: California during the years of Mexican administration (1821-1846) was a forgotten and impoverished territory rich in cattle and crops but poor in material wealth. The decadence of Mexican California (and even Spanish California) as portrayed in the book and subsequent adaptations simply did not exist. We can allow, however, that historical fact was not high on McCulley's list of priorities when writing The Curse of Capistrano.

For McCulley, and the American public who took to his creation, Zorro represented the great dashing hero who used his affluent means to fight for the poor and downtrodden. He may have been a purebred, but that only confirmed an inner nobility against the ravenings of institutional authority. In any way that counted, he was on the side of the huddled masses. Whether it was paternalistic didn't matter: it was romantic, picturesque, heroic, and a just plain decent thing to do. The Curse of Capistrano invented a pleasing cultural myth to stand alongside Paul Bunyan (created in 1916), Pecos Bill (created in 1917), and other instances of "fakelore", giving shape to American identity in the era of World War One and its aftermath. Zorro provides an ideal for Americans wondering at their country's new role in the 20th century, as well as solidifying the country's "ownership" of its multicultural heritage (in this case, events taking place before California was annexed during the Mexican-American War).

One of the reasons that Disney's Zorro television series has remained so memorable (as memorable as Zorro is today) is that it too satisfies this mandate. The first 13 episodes of the first season were based loosely on The Curse of Capistrano, with a number of key and telling differences. The boisterous and bullying Sgt. Gonzales becomes the still-boisterous but much more comic and good-natured Sgt. Garcia, an innately decent person who just happens to be following the wrong orders. Whereas the evil Capitán Ramon attempts to use his position to take advantage of the young Señorita Pulido in the atmosphere of Alta California's irredeemable corruption, Disney's corrupt Capitán Monastario must be especially conniving as he is acting against orders, abusing his position of his own volition. He is most certainly the better swordsman, as Ramon never stands a chance against his adversary but Monastario goes toe-to-toe with Zorro several times.

In The Curse of Capistrano, the Pulido family have fallen out of favour with the governor and been persecuted by him. Though unjust, it is more from the governor's own avarice than any treason perpetrated by the Pulidos. Señorita Pulido is in love with Zorro, but Don Pulido is more than happy to serve Zorro's head up on a platter if it will earn him back his lands. In Disney's series the Pulidos become the Torres family, whose Don has been imprisoned for speaking out against Monastario. The running plot of the first 13 episodes are Zorro's efforts to help Don Torres to escape Monastario and get word to the governor. In Disney's version, the governor is the trustworthy higher authority who can reign in this lone corrupt official.

Suited to the Cold War milieu, Disney's Zorro has a faith in the goodness and trustworthiness of civil institutions, and of the military rank-and-file, with evils coming from covert criminal elements. In later story arcs, Zorro is employing his talents to overthrow a shadowy criminal conspiracy that has wormed its way into positions of authority (if you follow the Marvel franchise, it recalls Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the Netflix Daredevil series). Much of Disney's popularity after the Second World War was due to their capacity to "reassure" an America finding itself once again in a new position in a changed world. From Davy Crockett to Disneyland, America's mid-century Aeneas developed a new "fakelore" and Zorro was once more a part of it.

Other deviations scripted by Disney include Don Diego's valet Bernardo being only mute but not deaf. The pretense of being deaf made him a valuable spy. In Curse of Capistrano, the Native valet Bernardo is but deaf and mute, and is mostly irrelevant to the story. The portrayal of Don Diego has always been difficult... Most film versions have played him utterly lazy, perpetually bored, and regularly childish. Disney's Don Diego is much more charismatic than other versions, no doubt because Walt saw that he couldn't make his main character loathesome to watch. In that respect he hews more closely to McCulley's original. The greatest annoyance in The Curse of Capistrano is that the reveal of Don Diego as Zorro waits until the final chapter. I imagine that it must have been a great surprise to those who read the novel when it was new, but it is difficult to see how when McCulley telegraphs it as much as humanely possible. Every single time Don Diego leaves a room, Zorro enters, and vice versa.  

Though McCulley was seemingly capable of tapping into latent feelings of American republican justice, it's actually not Zorro's fight against injustice that occupies the majority of the attention in The Curse of Capistrano. A full half of the novel goes by before we actually see Zorro avenging any wrongs. Instead, the greater fixation is on the love quadrangle between Señorita Pulido, Zorro, Don Diego, and Capitán Ramon, which at times reads like a Harlequin. Another good move on Disney's part was to limit Don Diego's romancing, being preoccupied as he was with heroism. A serious love interest was eventually introduced in the second season, though ratings impact was negligible and she disappeared from the story.

All of this can be found for oneself by reading The Curse of Capistrano online at WikiSource.

No comments:

Post a Comment