The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: Zorro’s Fighting Legion

Quick Facts
Released in 1939
Directed by John English and William Witney
Written by Roland Davidson, Franklin Adreon, Morgan Cox, Sol Shor, Barney Sarecky
Starring Reed Hadley, William Corson, Sheila Darcy

Basic Story Line
Zorro must protect the newly formed Republic of Mexico from a group of government officials, who intend to use the natives to overthrow the republic and form their own country, by posing as the natives’ god, Dom Del Oro.

John English and William Witney are two of the best serial directors of the 1930s and 40s and Zorro’s Fighting Legion is an excellent example of their talents.

The team of English and Witney have directed some of my favourite serial including the previously reviewed Adventures of Captain Marvel and Zorro Rides Again. They know how to move their camera and tell a story with it. The movement makes the serial dynamic and is always motivated by the story. In action sequences the movement adds energy to the scene. In other scenes, even simple movements, like a pan, reveals information that had previously been hidden to the audience or draws our attention to an important detail. In one scene, they use a simple but effective trick to emphasise the dual identity of our hero. Zorro enters his room, throws his hat on his bed and starts to change out of his costume. The camera pans down to the hat and fades from Zorro’s plain black hat, to Diego’s garish, gold braided hat. In a few seconds our directors show us everything we need to know about Zorro, Diego, and that the transformation from one to the other is complete.

English and Witney are also very good at filming action. Their fight scenes are always believable. This is important for Zorro’s Fighting Legion because it is a rare example of a swashbuckling serial. Sword play is uncommon in serials, likely because it required more rehearsal time and a specialized fight choreographer. There is nothing flashy or memorable about the sword fights in this serial but that’s the point; they are good, solid, and above all, believable.

Zorro’s Fighting Legion, like many of Witney and English’s serials, is well written. True the characters are flat, but the dialogue is good and the story works. The chapters feel connected and the narrative is always moving forward. The cliff hangers are also surprisingly good. In some serials the cliff hangers can feel repetitive, tacked on, or like a cheat. Here they flow naturally with the rest of the story.

Now we come to the elephant in the room. The native problem. When you watch an old Cowboys and Indians movie, things doesn’t usually go well for the Indians. For a 1939 serial, Zorro’s Fighting Legion, does a reasonable job. (If I was native I may have a different perspective, but I’m not, and I’m stuck with the perspective I have.) They did some research and found a tribe that is native to Mexico, as opposed to just making one up, or grabbing a Plains Indian tribe and transplanting it to Mexico. The natives are not the bad guys; they are simply being misled by the villains. The story seems sympathetic to the natives, pointing out that the European did drive them from their land. Ultimately, though, the serial is patronizing to them. Which actually makes it timely, seeing how that’s pretty much how they seem to be treated today.

Zorro’s Fighting Legion is a well written, well directed serial that stands up even 70 years later.

Things to watch for
-Car tracks
-A cool effect that makes it look like Zorro and his horse jump a chasm.
-A Native with a swastika on his loin cloth.

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink. (Note: You may never have heard of them, but The Yaquis are a native tribe in Mexico, so resist the urge to drink.)
Odds of getting sloshed: Low to Medium

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