This serial comes highly recommended by Bill Crider, but despite that, I had a few doubts as I started watching it. The cast is lacking most of the familiar Republic Pictures stalwarts (No Roy Barcroft? How can you have a gang of evil-doers without Roy Barcroft?) and the villain, at first glance, is more laughable than menacing. Don Del Oro, supposedly the reincarnation of a Yaqui god, wears a suit of golden armor and a golden mask so huge and top-heavy it's all he can do to shuffle around without falling flat on his face. Despite the fact that the story is set in Mexico in the 1820s, not long after Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the members of Don Del Oro's gang are played by the same stuntmen and riding extras who played outlaws and sheriff's posses and ranch hands in Republic's other Western serials, so they all sound like cowboys. Of course, it might have been even more ludicrous if they had tried to adopt phony Mexican accents. Charles King, who played the villain in many a B-Western, is one of the henchmen and looks out of place in his vaquero outfit.
Despite these drawbacks, though, ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION won me over completely. Bill's right: this is one of Republic's best serials. The plot concerns a sinister group of politicians and military men who want to overthrow Mexico's newly-established government and replace it with a dictatorship of their own. To achieve this end, they resurrect the story of the legendary Don Del Oro, and one of them pretends to be the Yaqui god in order to get the Indians to fight for them. Luckily, a visitor arrives from California just in time to oppose this scheme: Don Diego, who just happens to also be Zorro. He recruits a group of assistants to help him fight Don Del Oro, and these men are known as Zorro's Fighting Legion, hence the title of the serial. Most of the episodes are spent foiling Don Del Oro's plans to take over the gold mines in the region and steal guns and ammunition so that he arm his Yaquis. There are also efforts on Zorro's part to uncover Don Del Oro's true identity, and it all comes to a head in the cave that serves as Don Del Oro's secret hideout.
I don't know that I've ever seen Reed Hadley in anything else, but he does a fine job as Zorro/Diego. William Corson is a surprisingly competent sidekick who provides real assistance to Zorro instead of comic relief. Sheila Darcy is given almost nothing to do but looks okay in her few scenes as Diego's token romantic interest. The real stars, though, are the stuntmen, the photographers, and directors William Witney and John English. Action abounds, with the usual mix of cliffhangers, and the stunt work by Dale Van Sickel and Yakima Canutt is top-notch throughout, with Yak doing one of his trademark leaps from a stagecoach onto its racing team, where he then falls off between the horses, lets the stagecoach pass over him, grabs onto it, and climbs up the back. Great stuff for a stunt aficionado. The photography is very crisp and makes good use of location shooting, in territory that will be very familiar to fans of Republic's Westerns. There's a little bit of stock footage, but not much. Even the theme song and musical score by William Lava work very well.
My only other quibble is that the members of Zorro's Legion are all pretty much nameless and completely lacking in personality. With a running time of several hours, it seems like the viewer could have gotten to know at least a few of them.
All in all, this is now one of my favorite serials, and I recommend it to anyone who's a fan of that genre.
THE MASK OF DR. FU MANCHU (1951)
4 hours ago