TCS Daily

The Relevance of Romance

By S.T. Karnick - November 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Historical romances are usually as much about contemporary times as about the past, and the new film The Legend of Zorro is a perfect example. Typically, historical romances center on the replacement of an unjust social and political order with a just one. Westerns and vigilante stories, by contrast, tend to concentrate on establishment of rule of law in areas that have either never been civilized (Westerns) or where civilization has broken down (vigilante stories).

The fascinating thing about Johnston McCulley's Zorro novels and stories is that they combine all three genres: set in Old California in the 1840s, they are simultaneously historical romance, Western, and vigilante story. As a result, they show establishment of rule of law as a central element in the replacement of an unjust social and political order and the bringing of justice and peace for the common people.

That makes the Zorro stories highly relevant fables for our time, as the United States works to establish rule of law in Iraq and fight off a global terrorist threat. It is also what makes The Legend of Zorro particularly pertinent to current political debates.

The Mark of Zorro

First, a little history. McCulley began publishing his Zorro tales in pulp magazines in 1919, with the serialization of The Curse of Capistrano, which was published in book form as The Mark of Zorro after being adapted for a highly successful Douglas Fairbanks movie of the same name in 1920. McCulley published his last Zorro tales in 1951. Although the series evolved over time, especially the film adaptations, the central premise remained constant: an unprepossessing young nobleman assumes a disguise as Zorro ("the fox") and uses his wits, sword, and whip to fight an unjust and oppressive political order. (The concept is obviously based on Baroness Orczy's hugely successful "Scarlet Pimpernel" series.)

As in most historical romances, there is plenty of social order in the Old California of The Legend of Zorro and most other Zorro tales, but it is an oppressive one without liberty or justice. In Westerns, the rule of law has yet to be established, but in vigilante stories it has broken down, and this situation is attributed to the workings of a distant, unjust government, as in historical romances. Hence, while set in the American West, The Legend of Zorro exhibits the social milieu of historical romances and vigilante fiction.

In this sequel to his highly successful 1998 film, The Mask of Zorro, director Martin Campbell begins the story with a vote by the people of a small town approving the proposition that the state of California join the United States. A band of marauders steals the box containing the results of the vote. Their plan is to prevent delivery of the poll results to the state capitol and thus halt the drive toward statehood and establishment of a just social order that would provide liberty to the peasants.

Don Alejandro de la Vega (Antonio Banderas) dons his mask once again and sets out to thwart their plan. Don Diego's wife, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), is drawn into the fight by agents of the U.S. government on the trail of the Knights of Aragon, a sinister thousand-year-old brotherhood of wealthy Europeans led by French nobleman Armand (Rufus Sewell). These agents blackmail her into divorcing Don Alejandro and taking up with Armand, which the filmmakers present in an interestingly matter-of-fact way, making little explicit effort to condemn it.

The Knights see the United States as a rising power and hence a threat to European dominance. Their plan: to weaken America by fomenting a Civil War which the Southern states will win, thanks to their possession of a hugely destructive new weapon developed by the Knights: nitroglycerine. A permanently divided nation, the Knights believe, will be weak and pose no threat to Europe.

Current American Concerns

A preposterous scheme, to be sure, and the film is silly in several other ways (though still good fun overall). But the story definitely reflects important current American concerns, and its parallels to the establishment of rule of law in Iraq are abundant and clear. The fictional Knights of Aragon, for example, are a radical, fanatical religious group, and they use religious pawns to do their bidding: a band of hooligans led by McGivens, a wild-haired madman with a cross-shaped scar on his face.

Similarly, as the immensely wealthy Knights remain safe while their grubby henchmen are dispatched by Zorro and his few allies (on behalf of the United States as a whole, as the small group of U.S. military is doing in Iraq), the relationship resembles that of the Iraqi insurgents and the international group that supports and controls them.

There are further parallels: the vote of the common people in favor of representative self-government, the violent effort of terrorists to hijack the process directly, the attempt by a multinational coalition of European power brokers to prevent the United States from exercising world power, religious fanaticism at the center of the opposition to establishment of a viable secular government in a place that has known only oppression, the condition of the common people as mere pawns in a battle they are not even able to fight, the use of explosives against both military and civilian targets as the main tool of warfare by the enemy, and the necessity for the U.S. government occasionally to resort to shady measures in order to get the job done.

Also prominent in the film is the simple, sincere religious faith of the common people and their protectors: both Zorro and the villagers appear to be strongly committed to Catholicism, and Zorro's closest companion (outside of his family) is a priest, Brother Ignacio. The main couple's divorce (a decidedly anachronistic element) drives Don Alejandro to drink, and it is even more traumatic for the couple's young son, Joaquin, who was already disturbed by his father's pretense of ineffectuality. At the darkest point of the film, Zorro stands at the altar of the church and prays that God will help him. Religion, the film makes clear, is not the real cause of international unrest; the struggle for earthly power is what's actually behind it all. That, too, rings especially true at this time.

One suspects that the filmmakers intended at least some of these parallels, and that the others reflect ideas that are understandably in the air at this time. As such, The Legend of Zorro is another fascinating instance of how genre fiction can be very rich in its implications.

S. T. Karnick is an Associate Fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research and Editor of The Reform Club blog.


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