Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Zorro's Fighting Legion

Yesterday I talked about the concept of old movie serials being ideally suited to portable media players. Today, I share one of my favorites.

"Zorro's Fighting Legion" is a 1939 serial produced by Republic Pictures. Republic was one of the best studios churning out "B" pictures and serials, and the quality shows.

Many serials were shot using as many interiors as possible, giving them an almost claustrophobic feel (a lot like modern daytime soap operas). "Zorro's Fighting Legion" (ZFL) is a tale of the old West, and has as many outdoor scenes as interiors.

And there's no scrimping on the camerawork either. Here's the opening credit, where we literally watch Zorro's fighting legion assemble as they ride down the trail (behind a camera mounted on a truck). Listen to that thrilling theme song! William Lava wrote it, a talented composer who would inherit the position of music director for Warner Bros. cartoons.

And the stunts are top-notch as well. Pioneering stuntman Yakuma Canutt turns in a fine performance -- as many other characters. Here he is (as Zorro) doing an incredibly dangerous stunt.

Notice several things about this sequence. First, the wide-open-spaces camerawork and staging. Second, the stunt itself. Canutt is dragged between to galloping horses, and at one point loses his grip. When he flips head over heels, that's not CGI. Canutt actually flipped, was injured in the process, and could have been killed had he veered a little to either side. Third, if this reminds you of a similar sequence in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," it should. Lucas paid homage to the classic serials with that film.

Reed Hadley, a competent enough actor, plays Zorro. Hadley had an opportunity to study sword fighting before shooting began, leading to some pretty convincing action sequences. In this scene Zorro buys his friends more time by creating a diversion.

And although Hadley wasn't an "A" list actor, he was more than up to the task. In this sequence he flips back and forth between the competent leadership of Zorro to the foppish uselessness of Don Diego.

The serial is available from many sources, including as free downloads from Archive.org. Is it the greatest story ever told? Well, no. But it is darned fine entertainment -- and much closer to Johnston McCulley's original character than the one portrayed in "The Mask of Zorro."

- Ralph

Day 114 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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