It was the original swashbuckling blockbuster — a film that turned actor Douglas Fairbanks into Hollywood’s first-ever action hero. Now, people can see the silent film just as audiences did back in 1920, on the big screen and with live music to accompany it.
“The Mark of Zorro” will once again fill the silver screen next Wednesday night, April 3 at the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Merrimack College, on the Andover-North Andover line.
The screening, the latest in the Rogers Center’s silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a composer who specializes in creating scores for silent films. Rapsis says he achieves a traditional movie score sound for silent film screenings by using a digital synthesizer to reproduce the texture of the full orchestra.
Admission is free and open to the public.
The program will be proceeded by a discussion of the film by noted author and historian Christopher DiGrazia that will start at 6:30 p.m.
“The Mark of Zorro,” a major hit when first released, tells the story of young Don Diego Vega, the son of a wealthy ranch owner in Spanish California of the early 19th century. Witnessing the mistreatment of the poor by rich landowners and the oppressive colonial government, Don Diego assumes the identity of “Señor Zorro,” a masked figure of great cunning and skill, and vows to bring justice to the region.
The film stars Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who until “Zorro” had focused on playing traditional all-American leading roles in romantic comedies. The film launched Fairbanks on a series of historical adventure films that went on to rank among the most popular spectacles of the silent era, including “The Three Musketeers”(1921) and “Robin Hood” (1922). The original Zorro film was so popular it inspired one of Hollywood’s first big-budget sequels, “Don Q, Son of Zorro” (1925), also starring Fairbanks.
Fairbanks, one of the silent screen’s most popular leading men, was the inspiration of the character George Valentin in “The Artist,” the recent Oscar-winning Best Picture.
Critics have praised “The Mark of Zorro” for its tight story, fast pace, and exciting action sequences, which include many stunts performed by Fairbanks himself. Steven D. Greydanus of the Decent Films Guide wrote that the silent Zorro “...contains some of the most jaw-dropping stunts I’ve ever seen this side of Jackie Chan.” Film writer Leonard Maltin described it as “nonstop fun.”
This genre-defining swashbuckler was the first movie version of the Zorro legend. The story has since been remade and adapted many times, most recently in 1998 as “The Mask of Zorro” starring Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas.
“The Mark of Zorro” was the first film released by the newly formed United Artists studio, formed in 1920 by Fairbanks with fellow silent film superstars Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and director D.W. Griffith. The silent version of “Zorro” also played a key role in the formation of the DC Comics Batman character; in the original 1939 story, a young Bruce Wayne sees “Zorro” on the same night that his parents are later murdered, which leads him to adopt Zorro’s mask and cape as a basis for his own transformation into Batman.
‘The Mark of Zorro’ will be screened on Wednesday, April 3 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts, located on Walsh Way on the campus of Merrimack College. Admission is free. For more information, call the Rogers box office at 978-837-5355.