‘Zorro, The Gay Blade’ or — Hamilton’s Finest Hour?!!
It’s hard not to feel any kind of immediate affection for a movie that starts off with a proclamation of love for Rouben Mamoulian which is just as well because, in so many ways, ‘Zorro, The Gay Blade’ (1981) needs all the help it can get because that little bit of charm and love just about makes it work. Just.
It is Madrid, 1840, and Don Diego (George Hamilton) receives a letter informing him that he must return to Los Angeles because his father has been killed after his horse was frightened by a turtle. The good news is that justice has been served and the turtle has been executed, but the bad news is that Los Angeles is now under a reign of terror by the evil Esteban, former Captain of the Guard and now the ruling Alcalde.
A further shock comes for Don Diego when he receives his deceased father’s belongings — a black cape, black hat, mask and sword — along with a letter informing him that it was he, his father, who was the legendary Zorro and that the mantle of this champion of the people has now been passed down to him, his son. However, whilst leaping from a balcony during a masked ball in Esteban’s honour and after revealing that El Zorro has returned, Don Diego hurts his foot and his unable to walk. Disaster!
With Esteban’s reign of terror escalating and Zorro unable to fight for the poor or to defeat the… feetless, it seems that all is lost. That is until Don Diego’s long lost twin brother, Ramon, returns home. Ramon is gay so was sent away by his father to become a man by enlisting Ramon in the British Navy so he can receive his education on sailing ships packed with sailors for months at sea in the hope of turning him into a man. Now a Royal Naval officer he no longer goes by the name of Ramon but, instead, he is now called Bunny Wigglesworth. It is unclear if his father’s plan worked.
A plan is hatched for Bunny to take on the role of Zorro in his brother’s place and, amazingly, Bunny excels at it, the only difference being Bunny’s use of a whip instead of a sword, his excessively extravagant and flamboyant wardrobe and his immunity to female seduction.
Can Bunny stop Esteban’s diabolical tyranny? Will Don Diego’s foot get better in time? Will this movie put gays rights back several decades? Let’s find out!
Okay, let’s get this out the way from the very start — ‘Zorro, The Gay Blade’ is NOT a long, lost comedy masterwork. It desperately, at times, needs more jokes and the ones that are there could really do with being stronger, beefier, and it certainly contains some real groaners. Having said that it was also never anything but entertaining and fun and I laughed on more than a few occasions and smiled pretty much throughout. The material was generally mediocre yet garnished with the odd flourish of brilliance, like a splash of gold brocade set nicely against some peach taffeta.
But what does need mentioning, what is the film’s real secret comedic weapon hidden behind its mask, is George Hamilton’s performance which I can only describe as (like his costumes) absolutely fantastic! I’m not kidding or being flippant when I say that this is the best comedy performance I have seen in a film this year. The effortless charm, the charisma, the poise, the grin that exudes sexuality and stupidity in equal measure as though Douglas Fairbanks and Steve Martin had had a love-child is glorious. Every single minute Hamilton is on screen (and fortunately it’s throughout almost the entire film) he is a joy to behold. I loved him is this movie.
I was so struck by George Hamilton in this that I looked the film up this morning only to discover that he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance. What amazed me the most wasn’t that he was nominated for his role in ‘Zorro, The Gay Blade’ but that he hadn’t actually outright won. Watching Hamilton here is a reminder of just how good, just how strong a comedy actor he really was and it’s a real shame he didn’t get the chance to show that off even more than he did over the years.
The other performances are great too with Brenda Vaccaro demonstrating why she is sorely missed from our screens and Ron Leibman absolutely destroying the scenery with a performance where the expression “over the top” would be an understatement. The film also has a rousing score, possibly because it was lifted wholesale from Max Steiner.
I use to enjoy this film as a kid, in fact I even had the novelisation (I know!), but not having seen it in almost 40 years I was worried it would be somewhat offensive and containing nothing but gay jokes for ninety minutes. Turns out that isn’t the case at all as Bunny doesn’t turn up until halfway through and, with the exception of a couple of scenes where the baddies mock his masculinity (they are baddies after all) Bunny is actually the heroic figure and making a vastly more effective, braver and celebrated Zorro than his brother. I’m not going to go so far as to say the film is progressive but it certainly feels more that way that offensive, although if you’re the sort of person to whom the thought of straight, white, American men running about pretending to be homosexual Spanish Mexicans in bright metallic gold outfits offensive then yes, you might want to skip this one.
So yeah, ‘Zorro The Gay Blade’ — not great but not so poor it needs to hang its head in shame. And remember — there is no shame in being poor, only dressing poorly.