A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, PG-13, 135 mins.

Frank T. Hopkins: Viggo Mortensen / Sheik Riyadh: Omar Sharif / Jazira: Zuleikha Robinson / Aziz: Adam Alexi-Malle / Lady Anne: Louise Lombard / Prince Bin Al Reeh: Said Taghmaoui / Sakr: Adoni Maropis / Buffalo Bill Cody: J.K. Simmons / Annie Oakley: Elizabeth Berridge

Directed by Joe Johnston /  Written by John Fusco

There is something unique, magical, and endearing about the old archetypes of the cowboy and the world he populates.  They sort have taken on an almost powerful and mythological place in our heritage and past.  These themes have permeated much of our popular fiction and mainstream cinema.  I use the term “fiction”  very appropriately and carefully when providing some context for Joe Johnston’s new swashbuckler adventure HIDALGO.   It’s a film about presenting ideas and  themes, but not very good at giving us plausible history.  However, it does just that quite satisfactorily in a film that is largely enjoyable despite its inconsistencies. 

The film apparently tells the true-life story of "legendary" long-distance endurance rider Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his Spanish mustang of choice - Hidalgo.  Studios lately seem to have some sort of obsessive and fetishistic ability to cling to and advertise films that are based on true stories.  I am not sure why films even need to have that sort of lead in or title card anymore.  I mean, c’mon, usually only  a kernel of truth can be found in a two-hour film that tries to provide us with a re-telling of  actual events.  

At its base level,  its enormously tedious to even for once believe that half of the things that occurs to Mr. Hopkins and his remarkably adept and intelligent horse ever really happened.   Most modern historians often emphasize terms like “tall-tale” and “polite fabrications” when referring to Hopkins’ writings.  Furthermore, there is very little practical evidence to support that the events in the film (most notably a 3000 mile Arabian race) ever took place.  Is Disney’s advertising of this film as a true story a ridiculous and hollow sham?  Absolutely, but my job is to review the film and not the advertising.  As a historical picture, it’s highly suspect.  As a rousing and fairly entertaining action-packed western picture, it achieves, more times than less at genuinely inspiring and engrossing  the audience.   

The film may be based on a real life figure, but after the credits roll by it feels more like fiction than reality.  The film centers on Hopkins (Mortenson, fresh from the last LORD OF THE RINGS picture) and his infamous long-distance racing horse.  In 1890 an Arabian Sheik named Riyadh (played by the great Omar Sharif, in familiar territory here) grants Hopkins a very special invitation to enter a 3000-mile race across the Arabian Desert from Aden to Syria.  Hopkins was a half Indian cowboy who apparently performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show while engaging in much drinking and problematic behavior.   His invaluable mustang was granted the effective and proud title card of the horse with the greatest endurance. 

Of course, the Sheik, being a man of intense and competitive honour, offers out a challenge to Hopkins to prove his claim.  However, things are much different in Arabia that they are in America.  Not only would Hopkins be racing through the tortuous deserts, but he would also be competing against 100 desert-bred horses.  When you come to think of it, its either a completely heinous story or an outright miracle that the ill-trained and under-conditioned Hidalgo would outperform and beat any of his stronger and all-around better competition.  But, I will suspend my disbelief, which is needed in large and willing quantities while watching this film. 

Hopkins' journey itself is one that stretches the very definition of plausibility.  We are not just talking about a miraculously long journey through the intensely hot and treacherous deserts.  Just about everything but the kitchen sink is throw at Hopkins and his prized stallion.  Many horses and their respective riders die along the way.  The weather also makes for a terrible and grueling foe, especially in one completely impossible sequence where Hopkins on Hidalgo outrace a gigantic sandstorm that seems to be made of computer generated pixels and not of real earth.  When is Hollywood going to realize that people (or horses, for that matter – I am an equal opportunist when it comes to criticism) just can’t outrace natural elements like fireballs, explosions, radiation, and, yes, giant sandstorms?  For Hopkins to escape the storm must invite the notion that Hidalgo is faster than 100 horses put together.  Oh well, at least he did not outrace the sun falling like Brendan Frasier did in THE MUMMY RETURNS. 

Well, the sandstorm was not all on Hopkins palette.  He is a good looking and rugged America chap who has a penchant for attracting the ladies of any continent.  John Fusco’s screenplay throws two redundant female characters into the mix for him to contend with.  One is a very attractive, yet dangerous Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard) whose own plans at winning the race are as deceptive and greedy as her dark motives.  The other girl is the equally beautiful Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) who is desperately trying to not become the top prize giveaway of her father's ( the Sheik's) marathon race.   Geez, when is an Arabian girl going to be given something more to do in a film than stand up to her father and yell at him for being his horse race trophy , not to mention a potential love interest for a hunky leading man?  Her character provides for some of the film’s more lethargic moments, especially a nearly half hour scene that features Hopkins rescuing her from a group of bandits.  The film was overly long as it was, and this sub-plot was irrelevant to the rest of the story.  This is especially true if you see where the eventual relationship between Hopkins and the girl goes.  By the end, you are left wondering, “and she was in this because…”  The daughter serves more as a time waster (and extender) then a realized persona. 

Oh, on top of the daring rescue of the Arabian damsel in distress and the outrunning of the gigantic CGI sandstorm, Hopkins and Hidalgo face men with knives, daggers, swords, various insects and locusts, sandpits and deadly quicksand, deep and troublesome pit traps meant to impale its victims, and all of this  while trying to combat the evils of malnutrition and lack of water.  If the 3000-mile race were actually real, I think that only the latter would have fit into the picture.   

Viggo Mortenson plays Hopkins with an “aw, sucks” western mentality and charisma.  Think Aragorn with a slight accent and you’ve essentially got Hopkins.  Some critics have labeled his performance as wooden, mannered, and a bit leaning towards caricature.  He certainly plays up a considerable amount of western clichés with the role and, at first, Mortensen’s stiff delivery and stone cold conviction seems a bit forced.  Yet, as the film progressed, his mannerisms grew on me.  Mortenson is an actor of  quiet, inwardly draw power that wonderful understates emotions.  Like Harrison Ford, Mortenson has a singular way of conveying emotion in the slightest ways while still encapsulating a rough and tough exterior disposition.  His performance is about presenting  us with an idealized look at a western figure, and he wisely strays away from going for realism.  In a film that’s already a borderline fantasy, Mortenson plays the role for kicks, and his earthly and earnest spunk is quite winning in the end. 

One of the real pleasures of the film was to watch Omar Sharif, who seems to be coming around full circle with his performance here.  It’s IMPOSSIBLE to not see echoes of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in HIDALGO.  Yet, Sharif is not your typical Arabian Sheik either.  Sure, he seems like one of those stereotypical, larger than life figures that would cut off your privates if you violated him or his daughter in any way (come to think of it, he nearly does that to Hopkins at one point in the film), but there is a noticeably softer and tender side to Riyadh.  There are moments of subtle comedy and warmth to his character,  especially when he realizes that Hopkins knows Buffalo Bill and even has in his possession a colt .45 pistol.  It seems that in his spare time away from being a  leader of his people that the Sheik has become quite the western folklore nut. 

All of this sounds truly preposterous, and much of it is.  HIDALGO is not a film to be taken literally.  Sure, it offers up dosages of real historical incidents (like the massacre at Wounded Knee and the subjugation  and intense racial discrimination that the Native Americans faced at the hands of the white man).   Some of this historical context actually feels a bit force-fed and contrived, as if the filmmakers were trying to sprinkle truths on half-truths to bring validity to their story.  Yet, despite this, HIDALGO works on a level of being a light-hearted, fun, and nostalgic period action picture that seems like a throwback to a kinder and more innocent type of film that Gary Cooper or Errol Flynn would have make.  Sure, its inane to believe in Hopkin’s tale, his enormously gifted horse (who oftentimes seems more smart that a real horse could be) and the events that transpire.  But in the end, HIDALGO is done with a sort of bravery and boldness.  Its as if the makers were not held back in their efforts for us to have a fun and enjoyable romp. 

HIDALGO was directed by Joe Johnston.  He’s no stranger to escapist films with simply defined tones and moods.  He directed the fantasy JUMANJI and JURASSIC PARK III, two films that I hated, but he is also responsible for 1991’s THE ROCKETEER, a film with a sort of gee-whiz innocence and 1930’s serialized flavour that I secretly loved.  His work here in HIDALGO is broad, sometimes widely over-the-top, but kind of passionate in a way.  I am not altogether certain whether he revealed to me if he actually believes the story of Hidalgo, but he sure believes in the film. He paints the frame with wonderfully realized vistas and the cinematography that is lush and atmospheric.  The screenplay by  Fusco (who did YOUNG GUNS and THUNDER HEART) is meandering and often lacks focus, but he provides interesting personalities that keep the film afloat. 

HIDALGO is an overall fun ride, and its very lack of historical credibility should not undermine that it’s a genuinely harmless, innocuous, and silly time at the movies.  Its characters are broad and likeable, its scenery expansive and beautiful, and its action is well realized.  Who really cares if Hopkins did not really engage in a 3000 mile race with a horse that seems to appear and disappear with a simple whistle on his part and can do just about anything that he verbally tells it to do.  If you take the time to strip away and deconstruct all of the marketing B.S., HIDALGO reveals itself to be kind of exuberant and pure.  I recently watched THE TERMINAL and complained that its failure was in being overly sentimental and sugarcoating the film to the point of pretentiousness that completely eroded its credibility.  Funny, I did not believe that either film’s events could actually take place, but Hopkin’s world and journey seems more otherworldly and exciting.  Maybe if Tom Hanks outran a raging sandstorm in the airport, then maybe the picture would have worked better?

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