Zorro’s Fighting Legion

Zorro’s Fighting Legion
Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1939
Directors: William Witney and John English
Source: Hal Roach Studios DVD

Zorro’s Fighting Legion

Before there were weekly TV shows, there were movie serials released as weekly episodes, typically in twelve installments, shown as part of the “short subjects” that preceded a feature film. Zorro film adaptations usually have a distinctive historical setting, more colonial New Spain than Old West. Not so the Republic Zorro serials of the 1930s and ‘40s, most of which are basically standard Westerns that happen to feature an outlaw swashbuckler, and in which Zorro relies on a six-gun rather than a sword. The exception is Zorro’s Fighting Legion, which is set in Mexico in 1824 and features the Zorro we know and love, the fop Diego Vega who dons black mask and sword to fight oppression and injustice. Unfortunately, it has all the flaws for which the Republic serials are notorious: the plot is thin, obvious, and repetitive, the characters are cardboard, production values are bottom of the barrel, and whoa, the acting….

Zorro is played by Reed Hadley, an actor at the high school drama level—which puts him above the rest of the cast, whose only skills seem to be riding, fighting, running, fencing, and falling over when powder kegs explode. That’s mostly fine, since frenetic action takes up 90% of this serial’s screen time, and the actors just speak to each other briefly in order to set up the next deadly peril. The only exception is the villain who plays Don-Del-Oro, the boss bad guy who thunders his orders in a stentorian announcer’s voice from inside a golden god’s awesome but towering and ungainly metal mask. The rest of the cast are just glorified stunt men. But hey: good stunts!

The story is scarcely worth summarizing. The new Mexican republic needs gold from a certain mine to establish its government, but disloyal politicians in the service of a criminal mastermind want the gold for themselves. The top crook masquerades as Don-Del-Oro, an ancient god of the Yaqui tribe of Native Americans, come back to lead them against the white men. Zorro arrives to save the day, and since the local government is corrupt, he forms a “fighting legion” of citizens loyal to the republic to oppose them. The best thing about this fighting legion? They have a theme song! Whenever Zorro calls for them to gather, they leap on their horses and gallop to join him, singing, “We ride … men of Zorro are we!” I think it’s the first-ever Zorro song.

The portrayal of the Native Americans here is sad and unfortunate. In previous films Zorro was a friend and defender of the oppressed natives, who were depicted with dignity and sympathy. Not here: the Yaqui are superstitious savages easily fooled and led astray by the villains. Only the good white men can straighten them out. Despite this, there’s some stupid fun to be found in this three-and-a-half hour gallop-fest, especially if you’re under the age of thirteen or under the influence of powerful cold medications. Gunpowder must have been easy to come by in old Mexico, because damn near everything gets blown up; if a wagon strays near a cliff you can be sure it’s going over it; there’s a subterranean flood, beehive grenades, a peg-legged jailer, and as a sort of Zorro-signal, brush arranged on hillsides in giant Zs that are set afire to summon the hero or his legion. Plus, the music by William Lava, who composed a frantic Mexican-tinged gallop, is surprisingly good. Could be worse.

Yankee Buccaneer

Yankee Buccaneer
Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1952
Director: Frederick de Cordova
Source: Universal DVD

Yankee Buccaneer

This movie’s story is based on some real American naval incidents that took place in 1823 and ’24, albeit distorted almost beyond recognition. Yes, young Lt. David Farragut—later to be the Admiral Farragut of Civil War fame—did sail with Commander David Porter in search of the Caribbean lairs of some pesky pirates, but they did not disguise an American ship-of-the-line and its crew as pirates to do it. And yes, Porter did illegally put ashore a crew on Spanish-held Puerto Rico to raid a port with the absurd name of Foxardo, but he didn’t do it to rescue Farragut and a Portuguese countess from a lurid Spanish torture chamber. Everything else here is naught but a tissue of lies and deceit.

What we have here is a turgid naval bromance between Commander Porter (Jeff Chandler) and Lt. Farragut (Scott Brady), in which Farragut keeps getting into trouble and Porter keeps getting him out, huffing and pretending indignation, but really we know from the start that they’re meant for each other. Chandler channels the bluff Gregory Peck as Hornblower and does all right, considering what he has to work with, which isn’t much; however, Brady, though good-looking, is talent-free and quickly becomes tiresome. Not even the officers’ tepid romantic rivalry for the charms of the vapid Countess Margarita (Suzan Ball) can bring Brady to life. In truth, not much happens worth getting excited about, as the disguised ship sails around failing to find any pirates until it has to put ashore for some plot, I mean provisions. They do this twice! Occasionally characters faux-dramatically reveal their all-too-obvious secrets, or give each other McGuffins for some reason or other, but it’s hard to care.

At last the Americans sailing around in their ridiculous pirate outfits—costumes left over, like the sets, from Against All Flags, and they look it—accidentally figure out that all the real pirates are gathered in a secret location preparing to ambush a treasure fleet (or something). But they don’t do anything about it, really, except let Farragut get captured again, and we only ever see one actual pirate, a buffoon with the cartoonish name of Captain Scarjack. What is this, a Scooby Doo episode? The fine character actor Joseph Calleia belatedly appears as the wicked Spanish aristocrat behind all the shenanigans, and gets off a few good lines, but even he can’t save this turkey. Abandon ship!

Under the Red Robe

Under the Red Robe
Rating: **
Origin: USA / UK, 1937
Director: Victor Seastrom (aka Sjöström)
Source: Alpha Home Entertainment DVD

Under the Red Robe

This film is based on Stanley J. Weyman’s 1894 novel, the most popular book by that now-forgotten English historical adventure author, a man whose work was greatly admired by his contemporaries Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle (and by this editor—I included one of his short stories in my anthology The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure).

The Red Robe refers to the ecclesiastical raiment of Cardinal Richelieu, portrayed here by the dour and domineering Raymond Massey, who was a perfect choice for the role. But his is actually a minor part: the hero is a veteran swashbuckler named Gil de Berault, played by the German actor Conrad Veidt, whom we all know best as Major Strasser from Casablanca. Seeing beyond Strasser to accept Veidt as a French cavalier takes some effort, but after a while you get used to the idea. (You’ll still laugh at his black page-boy hair, however.) Berault is a notorious duelist nicknamed “The Black Death” who performs occasional missions for the cardinal. Returning from one such mission, Richelieu informs him of the new edicts that forbid dueling, and warns Berault that if he breaks them, he’ll hang. Richelieu then orders some arrests, and plays his flute for a while to relax.

Meanwhile Berault takes his pay to a gambling hell where he’s accused of cheating, challenges his accuser to a duel, runs him through, and is promptly arrested by the Cardinal’s Guard. He’s condemned, but on the way to the scaffold he’s reprieved by Richelieu, who suspends his sentence on condition that he accomplish an impossible task: infiltrate the castle of a rebellious southern duke and bring him back a captive to Paris. The cardinal gives Berault an assistant—and watch-dog—named Marius, an engaging rogue with nimble fingers who’s adept at sleight-of-hand. Cut almost immediately to the south of France—no time is wasted in this film—and the grim and gothic Castle Foix. Berault, reluctantly rescued from drowning in the adjacent river, is taken into the castle, where everyone is suspicious and unfriendly. How to gain their trust?

By the traditional method, of course: romance the lady of the castle! Enter Mademoiselle de Foix, played by French actress Annabella (yes, she has just one name, like Cher). Berault the spy inevitably falls for her, though she’s the sister of the man he plans to betray. This sort of thing usually gives a plot focus, but instead the middle of the movie grows confused, with everyone wearing false names, while agents with McGuffins mysteriously come and go, and character motivations get murky and unclear. It doesn’t help that there’s zero chemistry between Veidt and Annabella, which drains all credibility from their romance.

Oh, there are secret passages, a tower climb, pursuits and escapes, and noble renunciations in the name of honor, but they can’t quite save the thing once it’s gone smash. The ending, when the cardinal comes back on stage, is better, but it can’t make up for the muddled middle. Too bad: Massey is awfully good as Richelieu.

Treasure Island (1950)

Treasure Island
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: USA, 1950
Director: Byron Haskin
Source: Disney DVD

Treasure Island 1950

Walt Disney liked to adapt classic tales that were well-known (and copyright-free), so when he decided to make his first live-action feature, it’s not surprising that he chose Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, with its child protagonist and adventures in exotic locales. What is surprising is how hard-edged and gritty it is, considering Disney’s later (well-earned) reputation for peddling bland conformist mediocrity. This 1950 film is as tense and dynamic as its pre-Code 1934 predecessor, and just as closely adapted from the novel, though the exact choice of scenes and dialogue varies between the two. Moreover the Disney version, of course, is in vibrant full color.

Though the Disney film’s Billy Bones, Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesy, and Captain Smollett can’t match up to their earlier incarnations, Bobby Driscoll as young Jim Hawkins does well, and is far less grating than the saccharine Jackie Cooper. And as good as Wallace Beery was as Long John Silver—and he was very good indeed—Robert Newton in the Disney version simply blows him away. He is Stevenson’s consummate con man in the flesh, all deference and false humility, constantly letting the mask slip just enough to show the audience the calculating schemer behind the smile—a trick he learned from Beery, to be sure, but Newton perfects it. Plus, the broad West-Country accent he adopts as Silver has become the default talk-like-a-pirate voice of piratical rogues ever since. You can blame Newton for “Ahr,” which he slips in everywhere; at the end of a funeral prayer for a man he’s murdered, he even solemnly intones, “Ahr-men.” And with a wink, you know the mutiny will soon be on.

The film was shot almost entirely on location in Cornwall and the tropics, and it looks great, including the background matte paintings of Bristol Port and a distant Hispaniola run aground on Treasure Island’s shore. Speaking of the Hispaniola, the ship plays such an important rôle in the plot that in any adaptation of Stevenson’s tale it’s practically a member of the cast, and for this version they’ve got a fine square-rigged three-master that’s completely persuasive. The most important decision in the novel, and the most intense scene in the film, is when Jim Hawkins decides to leave the safety of the stockade and go alone to cut the Hispaniola adrift, which leads to the nightmarish pursuit of the lad across the darkened deck and up into the rigging by the deranged and murderous pirate Israel Hands (Geoffrey Keen). It’s the emotional climax of the movie, and after Jim wins through single-handed, there’s no doubt but that in the end the ragtag pirates will be no match for young Hawkins and the forces of right and decency, no matter how John Silver plies his deceitful silver tongue.