Hidalgo (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Disney's Hidalgo, about a late 19th century long distance horse race across the Arabian Desert, is a sporadically entertaining adventure movie that is hampered by poor pacing, a badly focused screenplay, and cheesy special effects. Seabiscuit this isn't. It would be unfair to completely dismiss Hidalgo because, in spite of its flaws - some of which are painfully evident - it nevertheless retains the capacity to engross and inspire. And it would be impossible to discuss this movie without examining a burgeoning controversy which is sure to dog Hidalgo from theater screens to video store shelves.

The film purports (more later on my wording choice) to tell the true-life tale of "legendary" long-distance endurance rider Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his favorite Spanish mustang, Hidalgo. In 1890, at the invitation of an Arabian sheik (Omar Sharif), Hopkins travels across the ocean to enter a 3000-mile race across the Arabian Desert from Aden to Syria. Hidalgo's competition is comprised of 100 desert-bred horses, most of which appear far better conditioned than the American animal to win under such adverse, arid conditions. Along the way, Hopkins and Hidalgo must weather sandstorms and confront Bedouin raiders, all while scouring the inhospitable terrain for food and water. Thrown into the mix are two beautiful women: a young, attractive girl named Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), who is trying to prove herself to her powerful father, and the dangerous Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard), whose plans are less obvious than her greedy motives.

As a straightforward telling of the race, Hidalgo might have made for a strongly entertaining motion picture. Unfortunately, director Joe Johnston, working from a screenplay by John Fusco, elects to interrupt the story with a 25-minute episode featuring Jazira's rescue from a group of bandits. Not only does this break the race's momentum, but it pads out the film's protracted running length. With the exception of some sub-par special effects (a sandstorm and a shot of a ship passing the Statue of Liberty both appear obviously computer generated) and a bizarre instance of mystical intervention in the desert, Johnston keeps us involved in the race. But, where a tighter Hidalgo would have been gripping, this version is long enough to threaten overstaying its welcome.

In his first post-Aragorn outing, Viggo Mortensen is more wooden than the post 'round which he ties his horse. Mortensen plays the brooding cowboy cliché with such somber conviction that he borders on self-parody. Hopkins isn't a character; he's a caricature. His horse often seems more "real." While it's pleasant to see Omar Sharif once more on screens (he can also be seen in Monsieur Ibrahim, which marked his exit from semi-retirement), this part is nearly as big a waste of his talent as the one in The 13th Warrior. (The rescue sequence appears partly engineered to beef up his screen time.) Malcolm McDowell has a delicious cameo that made me wish he could have stayed around longer. The plum role belongs to Louise Lombard, who devours it with the relish of a black widow.

Now, the controversy. Disney is advertising Hidalgo as being "based on a true story." (What is the obsession with movies to trumpet even the most tenuous connection to real-life events?) Indeed, the writings of Frank Hopkins tell the story of Hidalgo's amazing triumph in this 3000-mile race. However, most reliable historians have dismissed Hopkins' writings as anything from an outright fabrication to a highly exaggerated tall tale. In fact, no credible accounts (either written or oral) can be found to substantiate that any long-distance races were begun from Aden or that Hopkins was anything more than an imaginative writer. In short, although the movie's script may be loosely based on Hopkins' so-called memoirs, it doesn't take much investigation to determine that those writings are not accounts of real events.

The historical basis of a movie is largely irrelevant to whether it's good or bad, entertaining or not. But there's something disturbing about Disney's insistence of marketing Hidalgo as being based on a true story, when there's as much honesty here as in Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" statement. Stripped of that simple marketing tagline, Hidalgo and Disney would be controversy-free in this instance, but the determination of the marketing department not to come clean places another stain on the Magic Kingdom's already splotchy complexion. The Internet Movie Database's message boards for the movie quote Nina Heyn, Disney's Executive Director of International Publicity, as having made the following comment in the May 13, 2003 edition of The Saudi Gazette: "No one [at Disney] really cares about the historical aspects… If it transpires that the historical aspects are in question I don't think people would care that much. Hidalgo is a family film. It has little to do with reality." Yes, Hidalgo is a family film (albeit a mediocre one), and it deserves to be seen for what it is, not as the centerpiece of a controversy that has resulted from Disney's dishonesty.

Hidalgo (United States, 2004)

Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson, Adam Alexi-Malle, Louise Lombard, Saïd Taghmaoui, Adoni Maropis
Screenplay: John Fusco
Cinematography: Shelly Johnson
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 2004-03-05
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1