Movie Review: Hidalgo
Release Date: March 5, 2004
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: February 8, 2004
There's no doubt that Viggo Mortensen has been an actor for quite some time. His career dates back to the 1980s, and he has over three dozen film credits on his Internet Movie Database entry. But there's also no doubt that, after his immense popularity as Aragorn in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, his career has reached a new level. Legions of fans all around the world will be watching to see his next role.
It's not surprising that "Hidalgo," Mortensen's first movie in this new era, is not better than "Lord of the Rings." That would be an awfully high bar to beat.
What is surprising is how much worse "Hidalgo" is.
"Hidalgo" is the story of Frank Hopkins, a long-distance endurance rider and courier, and his mustang horse, Hidalgo. After being traumatized by viewing the slaughter of Indians at Wounded Knee, Hopkins enters Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, where he and Hidalgo are touted as the best long-distance horse and rider in the world. Offended by this characterization, an Arabian sheik invites Hopkins to enter Hidalgo in a 1,000-year-old race across the Arabian desert against 100 of the best Arabian horses, including the Sheik's prized steed.
Hopkins accepts the challenge, even though most of the participants look down on him as an infidel, and all of them regard a mustang -- a breed of mixed-blood horse -- as inferior to the finely pedigreed Arabian horses. But Hopkins gets a little more than he bargained for. In addition to actually running the physically grueling, 3,000-mile race, he also ends up having to rescue Jazira, the sheik's daughter; battle sinister foes who will stop at nothing to win; and keep the occasional eye on the misfit or fallen comrades.
In many ways, "Hidalgo" brings to mind "The Last Samurai." Both involve men who are haunted by the death of Indians, and who accept invitations to travel to foreign countries where they end up finding themselves. But "The Last Samurai" (listed as one of AFI's top ten films for 2003) took the time to allow the characters and cultures portrayed to unfold. No such care was taken with "Hidalgo." Instead, "Hidalgo" plays more like an outline of a movie than a fully scripted film. We go from plot point to plot point, with no understanding of why the characters act as they do. Hopkins' coworkers at the wild west show provide him with the $1,000 entrance fee needed for the race, but there's no indication why they would provide such a generous gift. Although it's made clear that the sheik considers Hopkins an infidel and thus a lesser being, he nonetheless entrusts leadership of the rescue of his daughter to Hopkins. (The criticism that "The Last Samurai" unfairly garnered of the white man becoming a better Samurai than the Japanese is more fairly merited here.)
There is a half-hearted effort to make Hopkins a textured character, but again, it comes across more as pre-production notes than fully developed text. The repeated references to Hidalgo being of mixed blood (and thus not as good as thoroughbreds) and to the importance of bloodlines are obvious parallels to Hopkins' own mixed white and Indian heritage. But they carry all the subtlety of scrawled notes in a high school literature textbook. It's as though they are reminders to the writers to fill in more nuanced dialogue, which never appears. (Unfortunately, most of the dialogue is unremarkable, and at times quite ham-handed. At one point, Jazira asks Hopkins, "Why do I feel that you truly see me when others do not?" Hopkins' response could have been lifted from the mouth of Joe Millionaire II, David Smith: "Well, my horse likes you.")
Besides "The Last Samurai," "Hidalgo" is oddly reminiscent of several other movies. The rescue of the sheik's daughter plays like a lost chapter of the "Indiana Jones" trilogy. Seeing Omar Sharif in the desert, of course, brings to mind "Lawrence of Arabia," as do the repeated shots of travelers struggling to make it across the desert (although they lack the beauty and grandeur of "Lawrence of Arabia"). The goatherd assigned to be Hidalgo's assistant is the same type of wisecracking sidekick that is commonplace in Disney films (for example, Timon and Pumbaa in "The Lion King"). The sandstorm in the desert that is used in the trailers has already evoked comparisons to "The Mummy." Heck, one could even make a plausible analogy to "Lord of the Rings" -- Mortensen as the brooding outsider uncomfortable with his heritage who receives moony looks from both a dark-haired, foreign-tongued beauty who lives with her father and a blonde lovely who wishes to succeed in a man's world. But so many obvious parallels and influences just makes "Hidalgo" seem all the more cliched and lacking in comparison.
Mortensen does an adequate job here as Frank Hopkins, but is unable to rise above the mediocre material. His delivery of lines is at times laconic to the point of unintelligibility, and I saw no real on-screen chemistry with his horse. The latter point sounds laughable, but inasmuch as Hidalgo is the titular character of the film, it's important that the audience see, understand, and believe the relationship between Hopkins and Hidalgo. However, with so much attention diverted away from the running of the race and into side trips and scheming machinations, there is little opportunity to watch interactions between Hopkins and Hidalgo.
The supporting cast is similarly hampered by the weak script. Louise Lombard as Lady Anne Davenport manages to do some fine scenery chewing, but Omar Sharif, while charming as ever, seems to be content just skating on the surface of his character. Zuleikha Robinson as his daughter has a particularly difficult role to play. For much of her screentime she is hidden behind a veil, and her character is written to advance the plot instead of for independent value. Jazira exists to be kidnapped, to be rescued, and to hide her face as a parallel to Frank's hidden heritage. As Frank thinks of giving up, she warns him, "You will prove them right, that blood is more important than will. You will continue your life hiding, just like me."
Even prior to its release, "Hidalgo" generated controversy. Disney has billed this story of a cowboy and his horse as being based on a true story. However, The Long Riders Guild has been researching the issue of Frank Hopkins and his horse Hidalgo, and their web site lists numerous articles stating that Frank Hopkins' claims were lies, and that there was no 1,000-year-old Arabian race, much less one that was won by Hopkins.
However, even viewed as a piece of utter fiction, "Hidalgo" still comes across as a misrepresentation. It purports to be the story of a race, but little attention is given to the actual experience of the race. It purports to be the story of a relationship between a man and his horse, but we don't feel the emotional tie that binds them together.
Is "Hidalgo" worth seeing? Perhaps, if you're a big Viggo Mortensen fan, or if you particularly enjoy watching horses, regardless of the context. But is it a worthwhile film? Sadly, no.