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Director: Joe Johnston

Writers: John Fusco

Main Cast:
Viggo Mortensen – Frank Hopkins

Zuleikha Robinson – Jazira

Omar Sharif – Sheikh Riyadh

Louise Lombard – Lady Anne Davenport

Adam Alexi-Malle – Aziz

Saïd Taghmaoui – Prince Bin Al Reeh

Silas Carson – Katib

Harsh Nayyar – Yusef

J.K. Simmons – Buffalo Bill Cody

Adoni Maropis – Sakr

Victor Talmadge – Rau Rasmussen

Peter Mensah – Jaffa

Joshua Wolf Coleman – The Kurd

Franky Mwangi – Slave Boy

Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman – Chief Eagle Horn
Running time: 136 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Year of Release: 2004 


To sum up: Hidalgo is the greatest long distance racing horse ever and he's going to the Arabian Desert to prove it. 

“You know what you're up against, American friend? The Ocean of Fire is not just a race. It's full of obstacles you can't even imagine. And if the elements don't kill you, your fellow riders will.”

“Sounds an awful lot like South Dakota.”


        The main reason to see Hidalgo is to stare into the dreamy eyes of the film’s star, Viggo Mortensen. Even though he’s dirty, with messy hair, a scratched face, and crusty lips desperately in need of some lip balm, he’s still the hottest thing in the Saudi Arabian desert.

        Here he plays Frank Hopkins a half Native-American army courier. Eventually one of the dispatches he delivers results in the famous Ghost Dance Massacre at Wounded Knee. I went to a college where they didn’t allow dancing, but this is overkill. Dejected and burnt out, Frank becomes a drunken fool performing for "Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show" during the 1890’s.

        He seems destined to drift into oblivion save for one thing, the renown of his horse named Hidalgo. Though he isn’t a purebred horse, Hidalgo is able to consistently win all of these long distance races. Some Arabs get wind of the claim of Hidalgo being the best and are offended by the idea of an impure breed being called that, and want the claim rescinded. They argue that Frank and his horse would not last in the famed Arab "Ocean of Fire" race - a 3,000 mile adventure vacation where you get to run out of water, brave blistering heat, desert sandstorms and race a bunch of Arabs to the finish line. So one entry fee later, Frank is headed to the Middle East to compete in this “greatest of races”.

        Don’t worry about whether or not such a race ever actually took place. Even though the film is based on the life of Frank Hopkins, I suspect that the inspiration is as loose as a pair of pants on a Jenny Craig graduate. This film comes off as an adventure film more than anything.

        That’s kind of the problem, it’s not exactly sure what kind of film it wants to be. Is it a character study where Frank finds a new focus on life through a baptism of the desert sand? Is it portraying triumph over adversity by an underdog? Is it a comment of the superiority of “Western” thinking, where all men (and horses) are created equal and can achieve anything through hard work and perseverance? Is it an Indiana Jones style shoot-em-up right down to the rescue of the kidnapped princess? Is it about the horse and how this tiny animal has more heart than his bigger Arabian brethren do? It is all of those things and because it is too many things, the film’s focus is as hazy as an oasis on the desert horizon.

        Since the film is called Hidalgo, you can bet it should be about a horse. And what a horse! He will stay tied up until whistled then untie himself and run to his master. It’s a cliché that horses instantly come when someone whistles at them. It’s a good thing that none of the Arabs whistle to call their horses. With 100 people all whistling for their steeds, these poor horses wouldn’t know which way to go. Either that or like mother seals hearing their young, horses are able to pick out the distinctive pitch of their owner’s whistle.

        Though a lot if time is spent on telling us how great the horse is, they don’t spend a lot of time showing us. There are instances where the greatness of Hidalgo is shown, particularly in some running moments. And when he lines up at the starting line, after Viggo is about to give up on the whole thing, he seems to know more than us mere humans. Yep, he has a big heart. But there is never really a good shot of Hidalgo squaring off against his Arabian brethren. More was needed of this. The horse also seems to have endurance far beyond any normal animal. His hooves can start to split. He can be impaled with spikes. He can drip blood from his nose. He’s working so hard, but through it all, he keeps going and going. He’s the Energizer Horsy. It’s nice to know that he has heart, but when Hidalgo gets impaled through the leg with a pike and lets Viggo cut him free (it was merely a flesh wound), then allows the wound be cauterized with a hot pike, and is up and running shortly after all of that, it stretches the bounds of believability just a bit.

        Viggo is good producing an honest burnout who happens to have a heart of gold. There is also a clear bond between him and the horse, really the one creature in the film he relates to. Omar Sharif as Sheikh Riyadh the Arab leader is charmingly disarming. It’s good to see the old boy basically reproduce the same type of character he played in Lawrence of Arabia. Zuleikha Robinson as the strong willed daughter, Jazira, is both exotic and vulnerable, though she isn’t more than a wanna-be liberated woman trying to survive in a sexist culture.

        As a distracting adventure film, “Hidalgo” will do the trick. It has scenic vistas aplenty and though a bit long, will entertain none-the-less.

        If there’s nothing else to do, you can race to Hidalgo.



(2004. Reviewed by Frederick Holbrook)


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