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"An action-adventure movie based on the controversial legend of Frank T. Hopkins."
"The film demonstrates that Viggo Mortensen can carry a picture all on his own."
"An entertaining western adventure that radiates simplicity."


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
Review March 2004

"Hidalgo" is an action-adventure movie based on the controversial legend of Frank T. Hopkins. Written by John Fusco, whose previous works include "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," "Young Guns," and "Thunderheart," the movie tells the tale of the world's greatest long distance rider and his faithful Mustang steed, Hidalgo. Hopkins became legendary by competing in over 400 cross-country races and winning every single one. But the film concentrates exclusively on his final race - the Ocean of Fire, an endurance run across three thousand miles of Arabian desert. Starring Viggo Mortensen and Omar Sharif and set amidst the beautiful sand dunes of Morocco, the film may be misrepresentative of the facts, but its charm and traditional sense of adventure help it cross the finish line.

Frank T. Hopkins is a washed up cowboy, a drunk, and a bit of a loner. And his painted Mustang, Hidalgo, is his best friend. With over 400 endurance races to his name, Hopkins was once considered the greatest rider the West had ever known. But that was then and this is now. Both Hopkins and Hidalgo have become more or less antiques, a sideshow in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. And in the interim, Hopkins' mixed past (his mother was the daughter of an Indian Chief) continues to haunt him. Then one day, he is approached by Aziz, a representative on behalf of Sheik Riyadh. It would appear that the Middle East has finally caught wind of Hopkins' accomplishments and Riyadh wishes to test Hidalgo and Hopkins in a race of the fittest. The race, known only as the Ocean of Fire, takes place annually across thousands of miles of Arabian desert. And it pits the finest Arabian horses ever bred, of royal and noble lines.

With pride at stake as well as a $10,000 purse, Hopkins and Hidalgo enter the race, becoming the first American and first horse outside of the Arabian line allowed in the race. But they also enter the race completely unaware of the consequences. Along the way, they encounter many friends and foes: the wealthy Lady Anne and her husband Major Davenport, the inquisitive Shiek Riyadh and his daughter Jazira, and the penitent goat herder Yusif. Of course, the journey is a long one, filled with unpredictable dangers: Sandstorms, locusts, and a slew of enemies intent on sabotage. And quickly, it turns from a prized race into a race for survival in which only those with a courageous heart will prevail.

Okay, okay. So "Hidalgo" isn't really a true story. In fact, very little of it may be true. What we do know is that there was a man by the name of Frank T. Hopkins, who lived from 1865 to 1951. And he wrote a series of memoirs with his wife Gertrude in the '30's and '40's, claiming to have competed in hundreds of long distance races, claiming to have been well acquainted with Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, and claiming to have beaten the best Arabian horses in the so-called Ocean of Fire with his loyal steed, Hidalgo. But the problem is, each one of his claims cannot be proven. Although screenwriter, John Fusco, defends his fact-finding research (which includes oral traditions passed on by the Lacota Sioux), many noted historians have proven otherwise; in particular, those of the Long Riders' Guild. Says CuChullaine O'Reilly, avid equestrian of the Guild in the annotated version of "Hidalgo and Other Stories by Frank T. Hopkins:" "They are the deluded ramblings of a very sick man." Piece by piece, claim by claim, the authors refute each and every assertion including the so-called Ocean of Fire, which Arabian journalists and scholars have also proven contradictory in written correspondence from Aden and Southern Arabia at the time.

So what does all of that mean? And will general audiences really care? For me, the historical details were irrelevant to my experience. After all, this is a movie that incorporates sandstorms that can be outrun on horseback; English speaking Arabs; cheetahs, quicksand, and other pitfalls; and tropical oases and complexes in the middle of the desert housing nothing but villains and thieves. Heck, even an embellishment is embellished. For instance, after 68 days, legend has it that Frank and Hidalgo reached the finish stone of the 3,000-mile race some 33 hours ahead of the next closest rider. But how cinematic is that final shot? If the film's purpose was to be considered a factual account, it would have been much more serious and much more tame. Even though Disney fumbled the ball in marketing the picture, you can't fault the filmmakers for wanting to make their own "Seabiscuit" meets "Indiana Jones" meets "Lawrence of Arabia."

Of most importance, the film demonstrates that Viggo Mortensen, hot off the success of "The Lord of the Rings," can carry a picture all on his own. Mortensen drops his regal stature as Aragorn to play a less sophisticated, half-Indian horseman. And it's very different. As the dispirited loner, Mortensen's Hopkins is reminiscent of Tom Smith (Cooper) in "Seabiscuit," a man who seems to have more dialogue with his horse than with any human being. Yet, his swagger, earthy good looks, and heroic reputation make him the envy of all the women in the picture. From the mysterious Jazira, daughter of Shiek Ryadh, whose culture frowns upon females riding horseback, to the competitive Lady Anne Davenport, whose affluence is used to seduce Hopkins - everyone seems to levitate towards him. Even Ryadh himself, played splendidly by Omar Sharif is intrigued, exchanging curiosities about culture, conquests, and cowboys.

The film itself is a throwback, an entertaining western adventure that radiates simplicity. Here, relationships are straightforward and curt, honor is a noble virtue, and romanticism is alive and well. There are no high-speed automobile chases, no cell phones, or convenient sources of food and water. Back then, the West was still the undiscovered country, ice cubes were a luxurious commodity, and the horse was the dominant form of personal transportation. The depiction of this is what makes the film very appealing, exuding a naturalness or purity that doesn't make your head spin.

Yet, for all its simplicity, I still felt the film tried to do too much. Having dueling romantic interests and a group of treacherous thieves to make a mess of things seemed like overkill. And at times, I wished it stayed true to Hopkins' straightforward declaration: "I'm not here to insult anybody sir. I'm just here to race."

"Hidalgo" is not a flashy, action picture with bells and whistles. Instead, it's a charming, wholesome tale of friendship, courage, and perseverance. It doesn't matter that the story may have been completely concocted, derived from a tall tale out of the West. Very few discerning moviegoers would believe it truthfully anyway. And it doesn't matter that the film takes a traditional Hollywood approach to entertainment because that's what makes it unique today. It has a spirit, an indistinct excitement that is fun and amusing. And for films like these, I'll gladly saddle up, kick back, and enjoy the ride.

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