In previews and TV ads, Touchstone Pictures proudly touts Hidalgo as "Based on a True Story," and sure enough, up comes the inscription "Based on the Life of Frank T. Hopkins" at the beginning of the picture. What follows, however, is so preposterous in its details that I felt sure Hopkins's turn-of-the-last-century life had been mangled by screenwriter John Fusco (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron). Surely Hopkins--while racing his steed across 3,000 miles of Arabian desert--did not stop to rescue and romance a sheik's daughter, wrangle with a leopard, fend off a blizzard of locusts, and outrun a gargantuan wave of sand (all while taking a break from Buffalo Bill's sideshow and carrying the guilt of having once carried the orders to the Wounded Knee massacre).
But if Fusco is stretching the truth, he had a lot of help from Hopkins, a notorious teller of tall tales. A quick Google search reveals two top results: Fusco's site Frankhopkins.com ("official tribute site to Frank Hopkins, America's legendary endurance horse rider and his horse, Hidalgo") and The Long Riders' Guild page "The Hopkins Hoax," which debunks Hopkins and Fusco point by point. The latter is far more convincing, pointing out that even the supposed 3,000 mile race--which, it turns out, could only have been run in circles--has no corroboration outside of Hopkins's own word. Though I'm sensitive to being sold horse puckey (especially when Fusco could have just as easily made an entertaining "Big Fish" tale out of Hopkins's slippery self-made history), the issue is academic. More to the point: is Hidalgo an entertaining tale?
Well, at 136 minutes, it's as long as it is tall, an inadvisable strategy for a movie about racing from point "A" to point "B." But Hidalgo has its strong points, attributable to journeyman director and Lucas disciple Joe Johnston (October Sky, Jumanji, The Rocketeer). With Johnston at the reins, Hidalgo plays like an old-fashioned "B" movie with an "A" budget and all it buys: Viggo Mortensen (fresh from The Lord of the Rings) as Hopkins, color-corrected desert sunset panoramas, supporting turns by Omar Sharif and Malcolm McDowell, and special effects by Industrial Light and Magic. For better or worse, the period hokum and emphatic Williams-esque score suggest a picturesque Indiana Jones pastiche, complete with sea voyage, two-fisting in bars, fancy revolvers, horseback riding, and tough dames. It all has a certain rustic charm, and the home-stretch final sprint is admittedly stirring.
But finally Hidalgo's mix of purported fact and fancy stumbles badly. Forget for a moment that Mortensen has returned to his dull pre-Rings anti-charisma. The cartoony conflict of the infidel American's mixed-breed mustang versus the finest purebred horses of proud Arabs yields clunky dialogue and questionable images. At first Mortensen's laconic Hopkins is a hapless alcoholic showman who accepts an offer bound to put him in over his head (The Last Samurai, anyone?), but by the predictably redemptive fadeout, his slave boy laughs heartily at his master's triumphant victory. It's one thing if the story were true, but to imagine the instructive triumph of an all-American steed (even as ridden by the purportedly half-Sioux Hopkins) over the backwards beliefs and behaviors of dangerous, reckless, judgmental Arabs feels like a Bush-league sentiment, or just so much horsing around.
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