Director: Joe Johnston
Writer: John Fusco
Viggo Mortenson.....Frank Hopkins
Omar Sharif.....Sheikh Riyadh
Louise Lombard.....Lady Anne Davenport
Said Taghmaoui.....Prince Bin Al Reeh
J.K. Simmons.....Buffalo Bill
Based on the improbable stories of Frank T. Hopkins, Hidalgo has been variously interpreted as Walt Disney's answer to 2003's Seabiscuit (it's unclear which project was conceived first) and their propaganda contribution to the conflict in Iraq. Certainly, it tells the story of a man and a horse, and claims to be based on historical fact. Unlike Seabiscuit, however, that claim has attracted the wrath of historians. That the man, an American cowboy and the horse, a good ol' mustang, go to the Middle East and kick butt may only coincidentally reflect on certain contemporary events.
The film begins in 1890, with heroic dispatcher Hopkins delivering a sealed message to Wounded Knee. This turns out to contain the fatal order, and the infamous massacre of Sioux takes place shortly thereafter.
Some months later, he has found a place in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, but he has been plagued by the slaughter of his mother's people at Wounded Knee, and has taken to drink, not unlike Tom Cruise's character in The Last Samurai. Fate intervenes in the form of a travelling Arab, whose country has taken offence to Hopkins' claim to own the fastest horse on earth, Hidalgo. Coming as he does from a culture that emphasizes the breeding lines of horses, this visitor takes special umbrage at the fact that this horse is an American mustang. He insists that Hopkins and Cody cease making the claim, or else prove it. The proof involves entering and winning the "Ocean of Fire," a 3,000 mile endurance race across the Arabian deserts that has been held for 1,000 years. No westerner has ever entered; many entrants do not survive.
Viewers may be baffled that Disney chose to present the events as a true story. Never mind that the Buffalo Bill Museum can find no record of Hopkins, and the "Ocean of Fire" simply never happened, in 1890, 890, or ever. Hidalgo works best as an old-fashioned, swashbuckling, Indiana Jones-style adventure about a cowboy in the Arabian desert. Its events beg to be viewed as heroic fantasy. Along the route of his race, Hopkins has time for adventures: battling villains, rescuing the Sheikh's daughter, and winning the man's admiration.
It's not easy to reconcile the big budget stunts, cheesy exotica, sneering villains, Trigger-smart horse, and fast-quipping hero with the grim opening scenes. Furthermore, the later portions of the movie lack the weight to justify the overall length. These characters cannot sustain a film that lasts more than two hours.
The actors try, certainly. Mortensen invests Hopkins with character, but he's given too few developed interactions with anyone but his horse. He works best against Omar Sharif's dime novel-reading sheikh, but that relationship falls into a clichéd depiction of people overcoming cultural barriers to become friends. Despite Sharif's charisma and Mortensen's talent, we don't see anything deeper.
Clichés abound. Every woman falls for our hero. The hero's sidekick functions as comic relief. A likeable, tough Black character gets introduced so that he can die with nobility while helping the protagonist. Tradition traps a free-spirited Muslim woman, but she risks all to aid Hopkins. A vision by the half-native Hopkins shows him the way in his most desperate hour. And, despite impossible odds and cheating adversaries, Hopkins triumphs, riding into Damascus to cheers of "Cowboy! Cowboy!" from the assembled Arabs. The movie ends with a dip in the Mediterranean, on the shores of which Damascus has been conveniently relocated.
Hidalgo did not perform to expectations at the box office, though it may find a larger audience on video and DVD. Much of the publicity that attended this film focussed on controversies. Some people complained about its depiction of Arabs and Islam. Though the film's portrayals are decidedly mixed, the film at the very least participates in a problematic exotification of Native and Arab cultures. As previously mentioned, its release during the current American conflict with Iraq has raised eyebrows. Most of the controversy, however, surrounds the fact that Disney claimed the movie is "based on a true story." That issue has been addressed elsewhere.
In the end, this hybrid, half alleged history with serious undertones, half tall adventure tale with serial pacing, will appeal to some people, but it's unlikely to take its place among the classics of either genre.