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March 2004

By Julian Roman
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Directed by: Joe Johnston
Produced by: Casey Silver
Screenplay: John Fusco
Cinematographer: Shelly Johnson
Music Composer: James Newton Howard
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson, Adam Alexi-Malle, Louise Lombard, Saïd Taghmaoui, Adoni Maropis

Hidalgo is an epic, rousing adventure, the kind of film that makes going to the movies worthwhile. It is a tale of a brave man and his horse, Hidalgo, the best long distance racer in the world. Haunted by his past and languishing away in boredom, the pair makes one last run for greatness. Viggo Mortensen chose wisely in his follow-up to Lord of the Rings. His portrayal of Frank T. Hopkins is the stuff of a true leading man, rugged and versatile, hearkening back to the performances of Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Alan Ladd. There has been a lot of criticism, especially from The Hollywood Reporter, about the way Arabs and Persians are portrayed in the film. I disagree with their assessment and argue that they missed the whole point of the film. The filmmakers make no sweeping indictments of any race or culture. They focus on the weakness of some and compare it to the courage of others. We are meant to embrace a classic hero, fighting the odds and those out to stop him. Do not let these errant observations dissuade you from seeing this film. Hidalgo is by far the best film being released this weekend.

The time is 1890 and Frank Hopkins is the greatest long distance rider in the America. He runs dispatches for the US military and unknowingly brings the order that commences the massacre at Wounded Creek. A half-Indian himself, the slaughter of Wounded Creek bears heavily on his soul. He takes his horse, joins Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and descends into alcoholism. Fortunes change when an emissary from Sheik Riyadh of Saudi Arabia (the great Omar Shariff) challenges Hopkins to enter the world’s most dangerous horse race. The sheik takes great umbrage in the claim that Hidalgo is the world’s best long distance horse. His Arabian, Al Hattal, is bread from the purest bloodline and the most revered horse in Persia. He wants to see Hidalgo race the finest horses in the deadly three thousand-mile race from Arabia to Iraq. It’s a thousand dollars to enter the race with the victor receiving one hundred thousand dollars in silver. Hopkins’ compatriots in the Wild West Show pony up the entrance fee and convince him to give it a shot. He boards a steamer to Arabia and the adventure of his life begins.

There are numerous characters in the story from many different races. The charge of stereotyping comes primarily from the way the Middle Eastern characters view Hopkins and women in general. Hopkins is thought of as an infidel and incapable of winning the race with his impure horse. Also, they engage in trading slaves and have very strict interpretations of a woman’s place in their society. People who charge racism in this film are totally off base. Many characters, especially the white ones, exhibited treachery and greed. The whites slaughter the Indians in America and are totally duplicitous in their schemes to win the race. I don’t want to reveal the story, but a white female character is the primary antagonist, not an Arab. The whole point of the story is overcoming obstacles. Hopkins proves that desire and courage, not breeding and society dictates what a true winner is. His actions speak volumes to those around him and he soon gains the respect of all that doubted him.

The film is beautifully shot. The editing, cinematography, and seamless integration of visual FX are quite impressive. Joe Johnston, the director and a mainstay of Hollywood FX films, reaches the pinnacle of his career here. He nails two important concepts that provide an authentic feel to the story. The first and most important is the race itself. It is a brutal, deadly trek through treacherous desert terrain. We feel the struggle of the race; it is not glossed over. There is scene after scene of characters fighting the environment to survive. It’s a wander to see, with cinematographer Shelly Johnson using many filters to enhance the barren look of the desert. Also, Johnston (the director) uses time lapse to speed up and slow down certain important events. The overall effect is visually stunning and adds to the pace of the film. The second thing that Johnston does is to keep the action a part of the story. The film never takes a break to endeavor into a useless action scene. The action is well done and fits perfectly into the plot. I never got the feeling that the action was driving the story. It’s the other way around. The race is on and Hopkins is out to win it. His adventures from start to finish are great, but winning the race is what he’s all about.

Hidalgo takes place on the precipice of the 20th century. The film does a good job of hammering that in. The Indians have been defeated, humiliated, and are being rounded up to the reservations. The horse culture of the west is on the verge of being wiped out by industrialization. Hopkins is the last of a breed and he knows it. The race in the desert is the last great hurrah for Hidalgo, a final race to prove he’s still got it. The horse is the champion here. Hopkins is supremely faithful to Hidalgo, never letting anyone belittle or harm is horse. Hidalgo is the spirit and mettle of the team. Horses have a lot of personality and champions are not easily broken. They want to win more than their riders do. I loved the emotional aspect of the film, a man and his horse against the world.

The story is loosely based on the real exploits of Frank T. Hopkins and Hidalgo. I’m not sure how true it is, but this is a movie and purists shouldn’t get worked up. Viggo Mortensen establishes himself in this film. Lord of the Rings was a spectacular achievement, but Hidalgo proves his strength on screen was no fluke. Mortensen’s career spans twenty years on film and he’s finally getting the A-list roles he deserves. Hidalgo is an adventure tale for the whole family to enjoy, filled with emotion and quality entertainment. I highly recommend it.