While many people believe that Zorro’s fictional character was created in 1919 by writer Johnston McCulley, the story of Zorro began in 1847 when the first edition of Don Quixote was translated into English. The translator added a new character to the story named Zorro, who appeared as a nobleman from early Spanish California, who at night would dress up as a masked avenger or robber to fight against corrupt government officials and those who oppressed the poor. This character became very popular in North America, particularly in California. The Zorro character was adopted as “The Fox” in the second book of Chronicles of Don Quixote, published in 1885. This idea that he was a noble fighter for justice, who dressed as a bandit, inspired the character of Robin Hood and other films from that era.
Zorro told the story of Don Diego de la Vega, a Spanish soldier who, after being falsely accused and imprisoned by Captain Marcos Osorio, escapes to his estate and becomes a black-clad vigilante known as the “Master of Shadows,” trying to right wrongs committed against the poor. Zorro was still famous in Mexico, where his legend inspired several novels and plays. He was still an inspiration even after Johnston McCulley introduced him to the United States in a trip report to the San Francisco newspapers of that time. McCulley’s was, of course, not the first Zorro story. He was telling a version similar to where he had escaped from prison and became a bandit.
McCulley himself didn’t write a single play or novel with Zorro in it during his lifetime. However, there were already several shows available. In 1914, fellow author George O’Connor wrote “Zorro the Great,” based on McCulley’s stories, and created the character of Zamparote, who was a thinly-disguised version of McCulley himself. The first silent film of Zorro was released in 1920, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and was directed by the then-known Rouben Mamoulian. Other silent films followed, and in the 1930s, the Zorro character appeared on the radio. The TV version was made in 1957 by Walt Disney Productions.
Who was the inspiration for Zorro?
The character of Zorro was based on a real-life 19th-century criminal named Joaquin Murrieta, whose group was responsible for several cattle rustlings, robberies, kidnappings, and murders during the California Gold Rush of the early 1850s. Although there is little historical proof that Murrieta was anything but an opportunist and a criminal, he was transformed into a romantic hero and a champion of the people in a best-selling book as early as 1854.
The Zorro Variants
Some variations on Zorro focused on children or other successors donning the Zorro mask and carrying on his task instead of Don Diego. The action was relocated to South America in a 1974 remake starring Alain Delon, but many of the old cliches were retained. Zorro, The Gay Blade, a parody made in 1981 with George Hamilton playing Zorro and Zorro’s flaming queen of a brother, Bunny Wigglesworth, who has a weakness for colorful outfits instead of plain black and announces, in camp musical style: “His clothes are bold, his mind uncanny, give him your gold or he’ll whip your fanny!”