(photoshop by beautiful girlfriend thesuperponyreturns)
Frank T. Hopkins was one of the last cowboys and a legendary long distance rider. As cowboys have faded into myth, Hopkin’s story has likewise grown more colorful to reflect his mythic status as a gun toting demigod. In his autobiography published after his death, Hopkins claims to have won over 400 long distance races, was a rider with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and as depicted in the 2004 western-eastern (weastern?) Hidalgo, won a 3000 mile horse race through Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. Historians tend to question wether this race actually existed, seeing as Bedouin tribesmen in 1890 probably had better things to do then sacrifice their best horses in a 3000 mile death race. However, historians aren’t in charge of Hollywood, so we get the “Based on a True Story” film Hidalgo. The story itself is probably all fake, but it’s a good fake story.
In the directing chair for this not-biopic is Joe Johnston, a director who could be the dictionary definition of “competent.” He doesn’t make amazing challenging movies that will blow you away, but Johnston understands that movies (especially those released by his employer the Disney Corporation) should be entertaining. Johnston’s films such as Captain America: The First Avenger and The Rocketeer are crash courses in how to make crowd pleasing action/adventure movies. Sadly, this puts Johnston light years ahead of many of his contemporaries, who think we want shaky cam and lens flashes so you can’t see anything. Viggo Mortensen stars as Hopkins in an understated, quiet performance. The real star of the show is the title character, Hopkin’s horse Hidalgo played by renowned horse actor T.J. the horse. The horse is very expressive, and a surprisingly engaging character. You’d have to go back to that creepy huskie dog in John Carpenter's The Thing to find another performance by an animal as good as T.J.’s. The film calls for a dignified and authoritative Arab leader, so naturally Omar Sharif is also on board as the Sheikh of Riyadh, who to paraphrase Frank Butterman in Hot Fuzz is a bit of a wild west nut. Zuleikha Robinson co-stars as the Sheikh’s free spirited daughter and Hopkin’s obligatory love interest. There’s also an unnecessary sub-plot where she is kidnapped by the Sheikh’s marauder cousin and Hopkins and the Sheikh’s slave Jaffa (Peter Mensah) have to rescue her solely to give the film more conventional shootouts and sword fights. I’m not sure if Disney inserted these elements or if they’re from Hopkin’s autobiography, but the film’s bloated run time could have benefited if they were cut.
The best scenes in the film are of Hopkins and Hidalgo making their slow, steady march across the empty desert. Johnstone bleaches out the colors of the frame to the point where the audience can feel the merciless heat. Mortensen and T.J. the horse actually have great chemistry together, and you get the sense that they’re a team who have been working together a long time. On the whole, Hidalgo has a few problems but is an entertaining film full of great spectacle. It also provides a interesting new twist to the classic western formula with the Middle Eastern setting. For a story made up by a lying cowboy, it’s a pretty good story.