A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is there a historical basis for Zorro?

August 9, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

I was wondering, on watching the movie with Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas, if there is a character in Mexican history on which the character Zorro was based. Or is Zorro merely some Hollywood myth?

Ah, yes, Zorro. The bane of robbers, thieves, bandits, ne'er-do-wells and clotheslines everywhere.

Clotheslines? Well, yes. If you were a kid growing up in the 50s and 60s there were times, watching the Disney show, when you couldn't help but emulate the sword-wielding hero on your mom's freshly laundered sheets. It was a pretty popular show, both here and abroad. (Popular enough in Argentina that the star, Guy Williams, decided to retire there.) That was in 1957, but it didn't start there. The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) lists Zorro films as far back as 1920 with Douglas Fairbanks starring in The Mask of Zorro. Zorro went on to become a Hollywood staple, right through 1981's Zorro, the Gay Blade and 1998's remake of Mask starring Antonio Banderas.

Zorro was created by pulp writer Johnston McCulley. Born in 1883, McCulley started as a police reporter for The Police Gazette and served as an Army public affairs officer during World War I. An amateur history buff, he went on to a career in pulp fiction and screenplays, often using a southern California backdrop for his stories. Although McCulley placed his stories in historical locations, I can find no indication that the character of Zorro was based on any real-life person.

Don Diego de la Vega, the mild-mannered caballero who at night donned the black cape and hood and made his mark against evildoers as Zorro, first made his appearance in print in the All Story Weekly in a five-part series entitled "The Curse of Capistrano," beginning August 19, 1919. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, on their honeymoon, selected "Curse" to become the inaugural picture for their new studio, United Artists, thus beginning the cinematic tradition. McCulley wrote at least 65 more Zorro stories, which in addition to feature films inspired a Republic serial and even, in 1995, a London stage production.

McCulley didn't live to see Zorro reach the peak of his fame, though. He died in 1958, just as the Disney-produced Zorro television show was becoming successful.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I see my wife is hanging out the wash . . .

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