Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews Robin Clifford 
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
Horseman, cowboy and Indian scout Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) had lived an exciting, and sometime tragic, life. He has traveled the west, witnessed the massacre at Wounded Knee and gained acclaim as a long distance horse racer. When he is approached by the representative of Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Shariff) to take part in the grueling, 3000 mile Ocean of Fire endurance race across the desert of Arabia, the troubled cowboy takes the offer, treks halfway around the world and makes the race with his beloved mustang, "Hidalgo."

There is a huge amount of controversy over this "based on the life of Frank T. Hopkins" film from Touchstone Pictures. While screenwriter John Fusco claims that the story is based on well-researched facts about the man, others, equally authoritative, claim that the tale depicted is based on myth, not fact. The facts may be that the story of Hopkins's life is a sham and the famous race depicted in the film never even took place.

Armed with the details of the controversy I approached "Hidalgo" with an open mind - I have always taken, with a grain of salt, Hollywood's declaration of films "based on a true story." In very few cases have I found the fiction on the screen to actually tell the whole truth. The very nature of Tinseltown is to embellish a story for popular appeal rather than for accuracy.

"Hidalgo," true or not, is a rousing, if overly long, action adventure that combines the contest that is the centerpiece of the film with typical Hollywood manipulation. Frank, after witnessing the slaughter of innocent Native American men, women and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and took to the bottle. He is approached to enter his sturdy little mustang, Hidalgo, in a race with one hundred of the world's best thoroughbreds and horsemen - The Ocean of Fire endurance contest. The promise of a $100000 winner's purse is too strong a temptation for Frank to ignore and the man and his horse head across the ocean to their destiny.

Everyone, from the Sheikh to the lowliest goatherd, disdains Frank and his little pony with predictions that the pair will be dead in no time at all. Undeterred, Hopkins and Hidalgo toe the start line with the likes of Sheikh Riyadh's fabulous stallion El-Hattal and a thoroughbred mare enter by progressive Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard). A bejeweled gun signals the start of the grueling race as 100 of the best in the world, man and beast, trek across the dangerous and forbidding Arabian Desert.

"Hidalgo" runs the adventure film gamut with the big race, itself, often a backdrop for other thrills and chills. Hopkins, the sole outsider riding in the Ocean of Fire, must face the resentment and interference of the local riders and their sponsors, as well as natural problems. In one sidebar segment Hopkins and Hidalgo must save the Sheikh's daughter, Jazira (Zuleikah Robinson), from the bad guys in true Indiana Jones fashion. Another scene has Hopkins racing against a monstrous sandstorm that smacks of "The Mummy" (1999). Man and horse face other challenges, including marauding Bedouins, punji death pits, lack of water and vast expanses of brutally hot desert. Much of "Hidalgo" is clichéd but it is well-crafted cliché.

Acting, unfortunately, takes a back seat to the action and adventure. Viggo Mortensen looks the part of the rough and tumble cowboy and handles the physicality of the role well. But, his thesping is not up to the character and the film weakens when he mutteringly emotes. Omar Shariff, as expected, lends dignity to the role of Sheikh Riyadh who, in one battle with a gang of raiders, takes on all comers and bests every one. Zuleikah Robinson is solid as the Sheikh's strong-willed daughter and fleeting, unrequited love interest for Hopkins. (It would never work between a Muslim and an infidel.) The rest of the cast goes through the motions well enough with bits of humor giving some lightness to the drama and action.

Techs are well handled with lenser Shelly Johnson giving "Hidalgo" a look akin to "Lawrence of Arabia." Costuming, designed by Jeffrey Kurland, is rustically handsome for cowboy Hopkins and, for the Sheikh and his royal family, elegantly robed and jewelled. Director Joe Johnston marshals his cast and crew in yeoman's fashion but without note.

The controversy over the veracity of John Fusco's story may take some wind out of "Hidalgo's" sails. But, if you are in the mood for an old-fashioned adventure in exotic locales with magnificent equines and lots of familiar action, then this may be the movie for you. I give it a B-. 

After unwittingly delivering the orders which resulted in the massacre of Wounded Knee Creek, Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen, "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King") becomes the drunken star performer of Buffalo Bill Cody's (J. K. Simmons, "Spider-Man") Wild West Show. Bill's claims that Frank's painted mustang is the greatest endurance racer in the world angers Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif, "Monsieur Ibrahim"), who invites Frank to be the first Westerner to complete in the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000 mile race across the Sahara populated with the finest Arabian thoroughbreds.  The $100,000 purse tempts Frank who sets sail with his little horse "Hidalgo."

'Based on the life of Frank T. Hopkins' is the ambiguous title chosen for the opening scene of Disney's controversial new film, the verity of which has been seriously debated (although screenwriter John Fusco won a Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Museum for his research).  But even looking at the film as a complete work of fiction, "Hidalgo" is a solid adventure yarn with "Lawrence of Arabia" locations, "The Mummy's" sandstorm, a rescue a la "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and a scrappy horse besting bigger thoroughbreds like "Seabiscuit."  Perhaps the film "Hidalgo" most resembles, however, is "The Last Samurai."  Both films deal with heroes drowning their sorrow over the treatment of American Indians by climbing into the bottle and leaving military life for show business, then accepting a challenge in a foreign land where they find parallels to the very culture they are mourning.

While we only hear of Hidalgo's racing exploits, we're shown his specialness early on.  It is Hidalgo who senses disaster at Wounded Knee and Frank, respecting his horse's instincts, returns to the scene that will crush his soul.  When offered a shot at the Ocean of Fire, Frank is too drunk to care, but Annie Oakley (Elizabeth Berridge, "Amadeus") starts a collection towards his entry fee that spurs him on.  During passage, Frank meets Major Davenport (Malcolm McDowell, "The Company"), whose wife Lady Anne (Louise Lombard, "Twice Upon a Time"), grew up among the Bedouins and is determined to have her horse win in order to procure stud rights with Al Hattal, the Sheik's Arabian considered 'equine perfection.'

Upon arriving at the Bedouin camp, Frank, hereafter the 'infidel,' discovers he's been assigned an unwanted assistant, Yusef (Harsh Nayyar, "Traffic"), who becomes the comic sidekick while a Slave Boy (Franky Mwangi) Frank has rescued becomes the mascot .  The race is harsh, its no assistance to disabled riders rule equating to an almost certain death sentence, but Frank manages to become one of the few who win a day's rest at the halfway point.  Another test arrives though when the Sheikh's daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson, "Timecode") gets Frank into hot water by visiting his tent unchaperoned (another woman with a personal agenda for the race's outcome), then gives him a chance to save his skin when she is kidnapped - the Sheikh will allow Frank to keep his manhood if he returns his daughter.  The second half of the race is fraught with betrayal, treachery of the highest order (traps are set, wild cats unleashed) and even some native American mysticism, but Frank and Hidalgo endure to return home for a conclusion straight out of the screenwriter's "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron."

Star Viggo Mortensen is sure to lure some of "The Lord of the Rings" audience to "Hidalgo" and despite his current star stature, Mortensen is far more successful disappearing into the skin of Hopkins than, say, Tom Cruise's last Samurai.  Director Joe Johnston ("Jurassic Park III"), however, doesn't maintain an even tone throughout the film, blending drama with the corn of Saturday matinee serial adventures, so that when Mortensen is driven to off an enemy with 'Nobody hurts my horse,' he comes across as a combination of a true animal advocate and Arnold Schwarzenegger tossing out a one-liner.  (It should be noted that one is subjected to seeing Hidalgo suffer a terrible injury.)  Louise Lombard presents an intriguing presence as Lady Anne, a woman who keeps her Victorian Englishness intact in the desert right down to her china tea cups (shades of grandmother Thornberry!) and Zuleikha Robinson is well cast as the Sheikh's feisty daughter.  Sharif plays the Sheikh as a likable old gent fascinated with the Wild West and devoted to his horses and daughter with the upshot that he is never truly threatening towards Hopkins.  Most of the Arabian characters are shallow stereotypes of the thieving or noble bent. Simmons and Berridge stand out in their smaller roles, their characterizations of American legends aided by a creative makeup department.

Director of Photography Shelly Johnson ("Jurassic Park III") paints a beautiful picture, bleeding color in and out of the film to express Hopkins's state of mind.  James Newton Howard's ("Peter Pan") score mixes in the appropriate cultural motifs without overpowering the action on screen.  And Hidalgo himself?  Editor Robert Dalva ("Jurassic Park III") knows how to milk a reaction shot and T.J. the horse knows how to deliver them (Hidalgo was played by 5 different horses, 4 of which were painted to match closeup horse T.J.).


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