Handsome, heroic Don Diego (Alain Delon) arrives too late to prevent assassins from murdering Miguel de la Serna (Marino Mase), newly-appointed governor of California. Having not set foot in the territory, the dying Miguel urges Diego to take his place but also makes him promise to uphold justice without taking lives. Shortly thereafter Diego arrives in town posing as Miguel and adopting an outrageously foppish and fey persona to fool his enemies, including the bemused and dastardly Colonel Huerta (Stanley Baker). As commander of the militia Col. Huerta maintains a brutal reign of corruption and terror, coercing poor starving peasants into serving as slave laborers. No-one suspects that the seemingly cowardly and inept new governor is really the legendary masked swordsman Zorro. Dispensing justice with a lightning-fast swish of his sword, Zorro wins the heart of the fair Contessina Ortensia Pulido (Ottavia Piccola) as he sets about making Huerta pay for his crimes.
At the time legendary French filmmaker Georges Franju, who knew a thing or two about masked superheroes, sniffed that this version of Zorro "fell flat on its face" because an international movie star like Alain Delon could never convince in a role requiring anonymity. Which sounds ridiculous when one considers Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power were hardly unknown when they played Zorro. Created by pulp author Johnston McCulley in 1919, the iconic masked Mexican swordsman was of course adapted for the screen numerous times down the decades and inspired another equally iconic crime-fighter in Batman. Minor gripes like Franju's aside, for the most part audiences in 1975 warmly welcomed Delon's dashing do-gooder in a film that set the benchmark for sumptuous swashbucklers until Martin Campbell's rousing The Mask of Zorro (1998) with Antonio Banderas. In fact Delon was motivated by the success he enjoyed with The Black Tulip (1964) into revisiting the costume adventure genre for a reunion with spaghetti western expert Duccio Tessari following their lacklustre, if curiously popular gangster thriller Tony Arzenta (1973). If you think George Hamilton camps it up something chronic in Zorro the Gay Blade (1980), you ain't seen nothing until you have glimpsed Alain Delon's outrageously dandyish demeanour here, complete with sotto voice and bouffant silver wig. Even so it is a good-natured and fun performance rather than an offensive caricature, showcasing the French film icon's oft-overlooked comic talents while he naturally also excels in the athletic action sequences.
Interestingly, Tessari does not try to de-mythologize, humanize or even attempt an origin story for Zorro but rather serve up a prototypical tale of righting wrongs with derring-do having Don Diego simply emerge out of nowhere through a shimmering haze in black costume and mask. There are hints of the grit, sand and sadism that characterize Tessari's westerns but the tone is far more lighthearted and family friendly with an emphasis on comic asides (Diego's mute manservant Joaquin (Enzo Cerusico) communicates by making bleeping noises much like R2-D2!) and slapstick set-pieces, possibly taking their cue from Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers (1973) although Italian westerns like the Trinity series had a similar comic flavour around this time. Diego even has a supernaturally intelligent dog for a sidekick. At one point he even converses with the crafty canine who clues him in to a secret passageway! Famed jazz drummer and comedian Moustache is perfectly cast as the oafish Sergeant Garcia, perennial butt of Zorro's jokes, while Ottavia Piccola is a spirited love interest, an aristocrat with a social conscience. She has a fine scene where Ortensia rails against the assembled sycophants at Miguel's court for ignoring the plight of the poor. Which makes the finale (SPOILER WARNING!) where Zorro casually rides away without so much as a goodbye that more perplexing.
Jagged editing muddles the plot though it is worth noting the eighty-seven minute English version was trimmed down from the one-hundred and twenty-four minute international cut now widely available on DVD. Although Tessari is no Enzo G. Castellari he stages some pleasingly eccentric stunts, chases and sword-fights that hark back to the silent era including some flawless miniature work when a horse-drawn carriage falls off a cliff into the sea and a memorable sequence where Zorro rolls through a dungeon in a barrel. In his final film British actor Stanley Baker proves no slouch with a sword either. While the chaotic third act throws everything into the mix from a comical Prussian soldier (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) to a karate chopping Asian vixen to somewhat nonsensical effect, the epic twelve minute final duel between Zorro and Col. Huerta that takes them from the streets, through the governor's mansion, crashing through windows atop the church tower, is a magnificently sustained action sequence. Infamous Italian soundtrack composers Guido and Maurizio De Angelis provide the folksy theme song that proves infernally catchy despite the typically dodgy lyrics: "Here's to being free, la, la, la-lah, lah-lah-lah, Zorro's back!"