Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.
Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
Masks are constructed primarily as a way of hiding the face beneath them, but they serve so many other purposes as well. Most masks are metaphorical because a physical mask is more distracting than practical, so to feature a character who wears a mask is a risky move for a film, as so much is communicated through physicality and facial expressions. This particular blog entry will focus on five films and their effectiveness of a masked lead.
#1. The Mask of Zorro
While created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley, Zorro was brought into modern popularity by the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro starring Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins both as Zorro, though it is Hopkins who plays Don Diego de la Vega, the man on whom the original stories were based. The mask served as a way for de la Vega to maintain his identity while fighting the tyrannical Spanish lords. Yet the mask serves as a way to pass on the identity of Zorro on to the next generation as well. The mask is a symbol of hope to the peasant populace, who rally behind Zorro, with faith that he will save them from their dire circumstances. Who is behind the mask is never really sought after. It is simply taken on faith that a man wearing the mask of Zorro will act as savior. Which, of course, he does.
#2. The Princess Bride
Released as a film in 1987, The Princess Bride still has a loyal fan base a quarter of a century later. It’s listed in several respectable charts as being one of the greatest American romantic comedies of all time. In order to earn money to provide for the woman he wants to marry, Westley (played by Carry Elwes) leaves to makes a living as a sailor, but his ship gets attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts and while it gets told through the narration that Westley dies, he resurfaces wearing a mask, portraying the role of the very pirate that was supposed to have killed him. Even the woman he left behind, his true love, failed to recognize him. It becomes revealed that Westley took over the role of the Dread Pirate Roberts when the previous one (merely another imposter in the chain of men taking over the role before them) gets tired of playing the villain and simply wants to retire and live in peace with his amassed wealth. Westley uses the mask, and the persona, to inspire fear (and even respect) in his search to regain his lost love. When the mask is gone, the persona slips as well. Whether Westley appointed another as the Dread Pirate Roberts before leaving his fleet behind is unknown.
#3. The Phantom of the Opera
Originally published as a serial that ended in 1910, the story of the Phantom has undergone several film adaptations. Most notably the 1925 Lon Chaney version and the 2004 musical based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage opera, starring Gerard Butler. Unlike the first two, Erik (the Phantom) wears the mask to hide a hideous disfigurement. Several theories, left unexplained by author Gaston Leroux, surround the reason for the disfigurement, but in all scenarios Erik is forced to wear the mask because society simply could not withstand his traumatizing appearance. At any rate, it was only after haunting an opera house in Paris that the mask became more than just a means of shielding Erik’s features, but also to inspire fear, though this only partially so because most people who Erik chose to show himself to usually ended up dead a short time after.
Ironically, the mask that represents the phantom in most advertizements for the Broadway musical is never actually in the show, but was a last minute wardrobe change to allow the character some limited facial expressions, but the change came too late for the advertizements and playbills which had already been printed.
#4. V for Vendetta
While his back story is complicated and varies greatly from graphic novel to film, the main character (unsure of his real name, so he goes by the misnomer ‘V’) suffered incredible horrible and disfiguring burns over the entirety of his body. V, played by Hugo Weaving, chose to cover them by wearing a fairly elaborate costume of Guy Fawkes while battling the tyrannical and depraved government, as well as those that personally wronged him in the past. He uses his mask as a symbol of anarchy and hope. V mails everyone in central London masks so they can participate, not only in the chaos that he hopes their newly found anonymity can give them, but also in the stand against governmental oppression. Unlike all the other characters outlined in this blog, V is the only one who the audience never sees without his mask.
#5. The Lone Ranger
An icon of the American west, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are affixed to great western tales of cowboys and Indians. Making his debut on a radio show (another sort of mask in itself), love of the masked character was instantaneous. The story was revised in comic books, films, and television series, with a new film starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp. The 2013 film was chosen by Producers to be engineered similarly to The Mask of Zorro. The reason for the mask was to hide the Texas Ranger’s identity so that he could better fight the man who thought him dead. But it, too served as symbol, not only of inspiration, but for all that is good in the fight against evil.
In nearly all cases, masks serve more as a symbol than a way to hide an identity or cover a disfigurement. People are too frail to put such incredible faith in, but give people an icon, and they will rally behind it. In the same way that it can inspire faith, masks can also inspire fear, because people notoriously fear what they do not know. Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface, and other such slasher movie villains all use masks to inspire fear, though give them a chainsaw, knife, razor nails, ect. and the mask means very little.
All images taken from Google