Zorro's Black Whip is a different kind of Zorro film. Unlike nearly every other Zorro movie, it takes place not in Spanish California, but in Idaho. Before you get too excited about the possibility of seeing potatoes with "Z"s carved in them, you should know that there are no swords in this movie. While we're at it, we should probably mention that there is no character named Zorro or Don Diego. As a matter of fact, Zorro's Black Whip has no connection to Zorro at all. There is a black-clad avenger, the titular Black Whip, but other than certain wardrobe selections, this character has no relation to Zorro. Heck, Zorro is never even mentioned.
Considering the tentative and ambiguous relationship between Zorro and the rest of the movie, it occurs to us that there are several other Zorro-related titles that the film could have had. John Hamilton, who played Perry White on the Adventures of Superman TV series has a role, so this could have been Great Zorro's Ghost. And it is set in Idaho, so Zorro's Potato Salad seems appropriate. Other titles we would have preferred include Zorro's Secret Shame, The Great Zorro Caper, and Zorro Sits in a Corner and Breaks Down Crying.
Set in the 1880s, Zorro's Black Whip takes place at a time when the territory of Idaho is still deciding whether or not to enter the United States. We're pretty sure Idaho did eventually become a state, but when was the last time you read about the state of Idaho in the news? We could probably check a map, but we're... so... lazy!
Based on a true story... we think.
The gist of Whip, an insanely long and complicated Western serial, is this: some of the people in Crescent City, Idaho, including Barbara Meredith and her newspaper-publishing brother Randolph, want statehood for the territory. Other people living there -- namely a group of local bandits and the stagecoach manager, Hammond, who secretly leads the bandits -- want to keep Idaho out of the Union and thus under their control. Fortunately for the good folk of Idaho, Randolph bravely rights the wrongs perpetrated by the bandits as Zorro! Uh, we mean, as the Black Whip!
Dressing in a black suit, hat, and mask, Randolph rides forth from the secret cave (complete with nifty waterfall entrance) hidden beneath his ranch house to stop robbers, save lives, protect property, and die horribly from multiple gunshot wounds. That's when his sister Meredith must take over as the Whip. She also inherits the newspaper, complete with a drunken typesetter nicknamed Ten Point (get it? 'cause he's a typesetter and -- oh, never mind). Ten Point's job is to play Alfred to Meredith's Batman by sharing her secret, wringing his hands fretfully, and relying on his Jitters Tonic (labeled 90% alcohol!) to see him through the lonely nights of being the Black Whip's only friend.
The U.S. government is represented here by Vic Gordon (perennial ethnic second banana and villain George J. Lewis doing a hero turn for once), a secret agent who pretends to work for "the train company."
"Wireworms you say? I'll get right on it."
Because Zorro's Black Whip is an episodic serial (12 chapters), certain things happen every 15 minutes or so. You can pretty much count on 12 fist fights, 12 horse chases, and 11 cliffhanger endings before the happy conclusion.
Every episode unfolds more or less like this: Hammond finds out about something that will make statehood more likely. He sends his goons to rob, steal and plunder. Vic Gordon shows up and tries to stop it, but invariably gets cold-cocked by Hammond's chief enforcer, Baxter. Then Barbara, who finds out about the goings-on in her capacity as a journalist, shows up as the Black Whip and saves the day, though usually we have to wait for the next episode to find out how.
You see, back in the 1940s, film editors were bitter, bitter people. As an episode ended, they would edit the scene so that it looked like our heroes got killed for sure. Then as the next episode started (usually with an overly dramatic title like "Avalanche!") we would see the exact same scene, with a little snippet of footage added showing that our heroes were never really in danger at all. So, for instance, we see Barbara and Vic trapped in a house that explodes. Then at the beginning of the next episode, we see that Barbara and Vic simply leave the house through a large window seconds before the blast. The only reason we can think that the editors do this is because they hate us.
Further proof of the editors' sadism can be found in the flashbacks somewhere around chapter ten. Instead of actually filming a a new episode, the filmmakers subject us to a "clip show," wherein the criminals try to figure out the Black Whip's identity, calling forth evidence from previous episodes. We must then watch the entire sequence over again, fistfights and all, until the outlaws fade back in with a solemn: "And that's why Vic can't be the Black Whip!" Yes, we know, all of these things are standard in a serial of this type. When you're watching ten or fifteen minutes each week of a serial that extends for three months, you're bound to need that extra bit of cliffhanger excitement and the odd flashback to get you caught up with the story. But we still felt like the Black Whip's editors were mad at us.
"I just heard a report of a potato crop
that has come down with mosaic!"
Don't get us wrong, the idea of a female superhero dressed all in black using a whip is okay with us. More than okay, really. Closer to a fantasy actually. But the Black Whip is a flawed superhero. For one thing, she can never speak. If she were to talk, everyone would know who the Black Whip is because Barbara is the only woman in town. (Seriously, there's not a single woman besides Barbara in the entire film.) Not that you would really need the Black Whip to speak to figure out that "he" is a she. We kept expecting one of the thugs to say, "You know, that Black Whip is mighty short. And kinda curvy. And now that you mention it, purty sexy too!"
The script tries to weasel out of this by letting Hammond, the Smart Outlaw, figure out Barbara's secret:
Hammond: How dumb I've been!
Baxter: About what?
Hammond: Barbara Meredith, she's the Black Whip!
Baxter: She couldn't be! The Black Whip's got to be a man! He's outshot us, outrode us, and outfought us, stopped at us every turn!
Hammond: She has because she's smart!
"Omigod! Colorado potato beetles!"
Well, technically she's able to do these things because she is less dumb than anyone else in the movie. That doesn't necessarily mean that she's smart.
Also, Barbara's life mission isn't very dramatic. She's not exactly fighting for Truth, Justice and the American way here. Instead, when Vic finds out that Barbara is the Black Whip we get the line, "All right, I'll keep your dark secret, at least until Idaho's enemies are beaten." Idaho's enemies, eh? That shouldn't take more than a long weekend.
Still, there is undeniable fun to be had in the movie's 211 minutes. If you want to get a taste of what rootin'-tootin' Western serials were like, this is the place to be, because Zorro's Black Whip is entirely focused on the action. When there isn't a horse chase, there's a fistfight going on, and no matter where the fistfight is held, you know every piece of furniture within reach will be broken. (This is actually a plot point!) Odious comic relief, provided by Ten Point, is kept to a merciful minimum until the last episode, wherein Vic and Barbara laugh heartily at Ten Point's alcoholism. Besides, how often do you get to see a masked woman with a whip, without risk of violating local morals laws?
Sadly, he also dies in the last few minutes of the film during the climactic gunfight. But at least he commanded enough respect that no one ever tried to call him "Chief." Go back!
Our favorite overly dramatic title was "Flaming Juggernaut," which turned out to be an ignited barrel of oil rolling down the track of a mine train. Go back!
Zorro's Black Whip operates under the sensible assumption that debilitating addictions like alcoholism are endless sources of amusement. Look at the hilarious drunkard! See him slosh down gallons of homemade hooch in an attempt to drown out the dreariness of his life in the back woods of Idaho! Isn't it funny? Hahahahahaha! Go back!
We see this footage over two dozen times as the Black Whip leaves the cave and returns. They also use it underneath the overly dramatic titles at the end of each episode. Go back!