Like the bald-faced whoppers of cowboy Frank Hopkins on which it is based, Hidalgo is fitfully entertaining hokum as long as it isn’t taken too seriously. Hopkins’ wild claims — that he was half-Sioux, that he witnessed the massacre at Wounded Knee, that he starred in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and most spectacularly that he participated in and won a non-existent thousand-year-old Arabian long-distance horse race across three thousand miles of desert — have been thoroughly debunked, but Hidalgo is Hopkins’ version of his own story, and he’s sticking to it.
Viggo Mortensen, back in the saddle in his first post-Aragorn role, is entertaining as the laconic, disarmingly soft-spoken cowboy hero called "Far Rider" by the American Indians in honor of his fleet-footed mustang Hidalgo. Remarkably, Disney doesn’t whitewash the more politically incorrect elements of Hopkins’ tale: The Arabs Hopkins meets are sophisticated and well-bred but also imperious, condescending to non-Muslim "infidels," slighting to their women, callous to slave trade, and in some cases duplicitous and murderous — though others are loyal and honorable, and there’s also an explicitly identified "Christian" (i.e., European) character who’s a villain.
The film is too slow getting started, but picks up after the long first act, livening up the desert race with attacks by raiders, a swashbuckling rescue mission, a Mummy-style sandstorm, and a harrowing assassination attempt involving deadly snares and wild animals. In the end, while this trip may not have been really necessary, it’s not a complete waste of time either.
P.S. Like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, also written by horse lover — and self-professed "honorary Oglala-Lakota tribe member"! — John Fusco, Hidalgo ends by suggesting that horses are wild things that really want to run free. Fusco’s got 22 mustangs on his New England farm; when’s he going to open the corral gate and let them run into the sunset?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.