Hidalgo is the story of a horse and the cowboy who rides him. The horse is, well, Hidalgo, and the cowboy is Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen). Though both are figures from real life, the story about them is just that: a story. Disney/Touchstone has waffled about the level of accuracy in the film, saying at times that it is an incredible true story or based on a true story, and at other times backing off these claims in the face of withering historical criticism (e.g., articles calling Hopkins the world’s greatest liar and declaring Liar, Liar, Chaps on Fire!).
The truth appears to be that the real life Frank Hopkins was a tall-tale teller, and none of the events the movie is recreates actually happened. He never won the races he claimed. He never worked for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. And there was no Ocean of Fire race in Arabia. Though the beginning of the movie carries a caption that reads Based on the Life of Frank Hopkins, it seems that it might better say Based on the Lies of Frank Hopkins.
But what the hey. If we ignore the Disney true story hype and treat Hidalgo like what it is (i.e., just a movie), how does it fare?
The film starts too slow, but it gets more interesting as it goes. One of the problems is that filmmakers wanted to paint Hopkins’ life in America as drab in order to set us up to be dazzled by the desert, but they let the drabness go on too long. (It’s also a little odd seeing life in a colorful spectacle like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show portrayed as a drab existence.)
The filmmakers also couldn’t decide what kind of figure they wanted Hopkins to be. Partly they want to make him an ace number one cool cowboy and Hidalgo an ace number one cool horse. Partly they want to make this a story of redemption. As a result, as soon as we’ve been dazzled by Hopkins’ homespun good naturedness and prowess as a long distance race rider, he suddenly becomes a drunk loser after being unwittingly complicit in the massacre at Wounded Knee.
But he’s apparently a lovable enough drunk loser that one hundred friends of his at the Wild West Show are willing to put together one thousand 1890 dollars of their own money to get him entered in the Ocean of Fire race in Arabia. (What loyal and generous friends he’s been blessed with!)
Now the movie starts to get more interesting. On the way to Arabia (technically, Aden, which is in modern Yemen), Hopkins meets interesting characters. He meets the lovely and aristocratic British horse breeder Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard), the elderly comic relief goat herd Yusef (Harsh Nayyar), the complicated Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), and the shiekh’s beautiful, semi-liberated daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson). These folks jazz up the movie a whole bunch.
The film is also surprisingly honest about what Arab culture was like in the 1890s (and which it still resembles in large part) far more honest than I would have expected from Disney. From a western point of view, the Arabs in the film are alternately charmingly elegant and brutally savage, faithfully loyal and back-stabbingly duplicitous. They treat their women like dirt, are unrepentant slaveholders, and sneer arrogantly and repeatedly at non-Muslims. When Sheikh Ryiadh first meets Frank Hopkins, he won’t even touch him because he is an impure unbeliever (a fact of which many other characters in the film remind him).
Now, you’re probably going, Wait a minute! This is far too politically incorrect for Disney! Where’s all the politically correct hoo-hah that we’re expecting? Answer: They’re saving it for the end of the film.
While the film shows us both good Arabs and bad Arabs and good Westerners and bad Westerners, as the movie rolls along it becomes clear that the one person explicitly identified as a Christian in the film is evil, and in fact the central villain. So there’s a counterweight to all the nasty Arabs (who are never identified as Muslims). Also, the film pulls out Disney’s usual Native American spirituality fetish. It turns out that the film’s Hopkins (who knows about the real-life one?) is a half-breed who is torn between his Anglo-ness and his American Indian-ness. Though he initially hides his America Indian-ness from white society (which isn’t hard, being as blond as he is), as the story unfolds he progressively embraces it. Toward the end of the film, when he is hallucinating in the desert heat and sees an apparition of his Indian ancestors, he does a tribal chant to them to pray for their help. The last few minutes of the film also contain a politically correct statement of animal liberation that should send the folks at PETA to hog heaven or perhaps that should be horse heaven.
But the film isn’t about calculus of political correctness that Disney feels the need to weave into its movies. It’s a story about an American cowboy and his wonder horse who go to Arabia to run in a race. That’s what the audience wants to see, and that’s what the movie delivers. The desert is beautiful, the sandstorm is powerful, the comic relief is funny, and horse race is competitive. All that is to the good. So while Hidalgo may not be an incredible true story or even a powerful story of redemption, it still ends up being an entertaining one.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.