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Preface
 

Like many people , I was introduced to the character of el Zorro by watching the weekly Disney series that first aired in the fall of 1957.  Captivated by the dashing prankster, I could not then have imagined that he was just a fictional character, or that the real Zorro might not have looked or sounded exactly like the actor Guy Williams, who brought him so vividly to life.  Not until I was much older did I find out that there had been a Tyrone Power Zorro and a Douglas Fairbanks Zorro.  But even then, I could never have anticipated the George Hamilton Zorro or the Antonio Banderas Zorro, with its lavish sets and costumes, its sophisticated special effects and its attempts to incorporate Mexican history.

Now, many years later, having seen all of the above, and having read Johnston McCulley’s original pulp fiction tale and several other Zorro novels, I feel at least somewhat qualified to make comparisons.  So let me begin by acknowledging some of the obvious criticisms that have been leveled at the Disney Zorro over the years:

Clearly, Williams’ portrayal wasn’t entirely faithful to McCulley’s foppish Don Diego Vega, who, by the standards of the 1950's, would have been considered too effeminate.  Nor did his portrayal of el Zorro even hint at the more sinister side of an outlaw who sometimes stole money, whipped men with bull whips and carved bloody Z’s into their foreheads before he killed them.

Disney in the 1950’s also had a curious sense of education as a possession, something which, like “culture,” it was assumed one could own, like a set of encyclopedias.  But it wasn’t supposed to transform the person who acquired it. So while Diego did occasionally mention “philosophy,” we are told in the first episode that he really is a “man of action” who just pretends to be “a man of letters,” as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive.

The Disney writers were also smug enough in one episode to imply that Diego’s status as an outlaw with a price on his head gave him an understanding of victimization equal to that of a poor young vaquero who leads an uprising against an oppressive tyrant. This isn’t unlike saying that, for having spent a weekend in a motor home, Donald Trump knows what it’s like to grow up in a trailer court.

Moreover, like many shows of the 1950’s, Disney’s Zorro catered to a few unfortunate stereotypes: the fat, stupid, lazy Mexicans, the primitive Indians, the homely but shrewd spinsters, the treacherous dark ladies, the spitfires, the wide-eyed bar maid who knew that beneath his mask, el Zorro was handsome because, “there are some things you just know, if you are a girl.”

In fact, no character was especially well rounded.  Bad guys were bad guys, plain and simple.  No motive more complicated than moustache-twirling greed drove the evil Capitan Monastario to pursue poor Nacho Torres, who was himself little more than a stock good guy who agonized over his part in the persecution of the mission Indians.

Even Don Alejandro, a widower for many years, never seemed to miss his wife, or to worry what might happen if his only son ever actually did take up the sword.  My parents were squeamish about lending me the car keys, let alone seeing me engage in war protests or civil rights marches.  Yet even after learning Diego’s secret, Alejandro was always strangely eager to see Zorro ride.

Nonetheless, with all that said, we must also acknowledge that there is a kind of magic in the Disney Zorro, whether we attribute it to the actor, the producer, the writers, the directors, or simply to the spirit of el Zorro himself.  For it does seem almost as if the character Williams brought to life took on a life of his own—one that, like the spirit of Cervantes’ Quixote, managed to rise above and perhaps even to possess his creators.

The charm of this particular Zorro was so compelling that I suspect he left a deeper mark on the imaginations of my generation than any of his predecessors managed to leave on theirs.  Even now, he seems able to reach out to younger viewers, carving his own playful Z on their hearts, inspiring them to dream up even more adventures.  Through them, he does indeed live on.

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