Zorro, the dashing, swashbuckling hero of page and screen, has been a popular figure for almost an entire century now. Nevertheless, sometimes he’ll disappear from the forefront of popular media for a while, and the 1980s was such a time. That’s why, in 1981, a new generation of slightly baffled children (including yours truly) got their very first taste of Zorro in a decidedly offbeat movie called Zorro, the Gay Blade.
George Hamilton, fresh from his successful turn as a funny Count Dracula in Love at First Bite (1979), here appears as the suave hero Don Diego de la Vega, who returns to his childhood home in Los Angeles only to find that his recently deceased father was, in fact, the legendary masked hero Zorro. A heartfelt note from the deceased urges either Diego or his brother to take up the mask and cape of Zorro, and to defend the downtrodden should the need arise. The vain and frivolous Diego ignores this request, opting instead to wear the Zorro gear to a costume party inaugurating his childhood friend Esteban (Ron Leibman) as the new Alcalde.
However, while riding to the party, Diego remarks, “I don’t feel too good about wearing this costume in front of real acts of tyranny and injustice. It’s like asking for trouble!” Sure enough, when Diego spots a cruel one-eyed man riding away with a poor man’s life savings, he intervenes, returns the money to the peasant, and proudly announces that “Zorro has returned!” He is only slightly alarmed when he learns that the man he defeated was the tax collector, not a bandit. Oops….
There’s nothing for it now but to continue his Robin Hood-like acts of justice as the new face of Zorro. Esteban has turned out to be a greedy despot, intent on bleeding the peasants dry, but Zorro defeats him at every turn. That is, until a broken foot puts the new hero out of commission. Who will protect the people of Los Angeles now?
Enter Zorro’s gay brother, Ramon! (Yes, really.) Ramon (Hamilton again, with more extreme makeup and a different accent) has been away in Great Britain, where he joined the Royal Navy and adopted the name “Bunny Wigglesworth.” He has equal claim to the mantle of Zorro, and with Diego injured, the people need a new protector. Bunny lacks his brother’s sword-fighting skills, but he’s a deft hand with a bullwhip. Will he become the people’s protector? Yes, but only if he can wear a more colourful costume! That all-black getup is so dreary.
Hamilton really chews up the scenery here, in both roles. As Diego, he’s ridiculously suave and arrogant, with a Spanish accent sillier than anything Sacha Baron Cohen could come up with. His “Bunny” character takes that level of silliness as a starting point, and then blasts off into fresh new frontiers of absurdity on a rocket sled, mincing and giggling the entire way. The word “restraint” is not in this man’s vocabulary, and he’s a treat to watch.
You’d think that Hamilton’s flamboyantly homosexual Zorro would be the most outrageous character in the movie, but incredibly, he’s trumped by the main villain Esteban, who gives a performance so extreme, it leaves me speechless. I guess actor Ron Leibman saw George falsetto-giggling his way through a scene and decided “you’re not upstaging me, you son of a bitch!” The corrupt new Alcalde has a “Spanish” accent that’s 10 times weirder than Hamilton’s, and he stretches every single vowel to the limits of human vocal ability. If you turned the sound off and watched his lip movements, you’d assume he was singing. Turn it back on, and you still wouldn’t be sure he wasn’t. A perfect example is the ludicrous scene in which Esteban learns that there is a newer, fruitier Zorro in town….
Esteban: “He wore what?”
Tax Collector: “Plum.”
Esteban: “He wore a frrroooottt?”
TC: “No, excellency. He was dressed entirely in ‘Plum.’ Everything matched. And he talked differently. He sounded like a… poof.”
Don #1: (entering breathlessly) “Excellency, I’ve been robbed! By Zorro! He was dressed in yellow like a big banana!”
Esteban: “Ahaaaaaaa, I theeenk heee’s tryink to tell me sommmmthingggg; first a plummm, then a banaaaaannnaaaaaaaaaaa…”
Don #2: (running in) “Alcante! Something terrible has happened!”
Esteban: “I know. Joost tell me hhwhat he hhwore.”
Don #2: “Green!”
Esteban: “Hhlike a hhlliiiime?”
Don #2: “Like an avocado!”
Esteban: “Ahaaaaaa, twoooo froooootsss, and now a veggietabballll…”
TC: “Actually, avocado is a fruit, excellency.” (He is silenced by a withering glare.)
The scene continues from there, with the tax collector taking notes on how many fruits, vegetables and flowers are used to describe Zorro’s colourful garb. It gets funnier and funnier.
In addition to being a bona fide oddity, Zorro the Gay Blade is a surprisingly exciting and fun swashbuckling film in its own right. The character of Bunny Wigglesworth was a rare sight in the ’80s; out, proud and genuinely heroic. He kicked even more ass than the “real“ Zorro, and the only people who judged him for his effeminate manner were the villains. This is a funny, silly film that might be a little more progressive than we thought at the time, and is perhaps due for rediscovery.