Director : Joe Johnston
Screenplay : John Fusco
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Viggo Mortensen (Frank T. 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)
Hidalgo has much in common with Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, as both are set near the end of the 19th century and are about Americans who, resentful of their government’s treatment of Native Americans, find personal redemption in the East. While Tom Cruise’s Nathan Algren goes to Japan with the intention of modernizing the army, but eventually embraces and learns the ancient ways of the dying samurai, Viggo Mortensen’s Frank T. Hopkins travels to the Middle East to compete in “The Ocean of Fire,” a 3,000-mile horse race across the Saudi desert. If Algren is absorbed into the exotic foreign culture he enters (albeit without ever losing his Western “superiority”), Hopkins remains the perennial outsider whose potential victory in the race is its own signal of his “superior” status.
Interestingly enough, Hidalgo also resembles last summer’s Seabiscuit in its emphasis on will and determination over breeding and heritage. Hopkins and his determined mustang, the eponymous Hidalgo, have won numerous long-distance races in the United States, but the real challenge is “The Ocean of Fire,” in which he will be competing against pure-bred Arabian stallions, whose heritages can be traced back thousands of years. The underlying thematic strand about the supposed superiority of pure blood over mixed blood is an uneasy one, as issues of race and culture clash constantly bubble up and rupture the surface of a movie that clearly wants to be a big-hearted crowd-pleaser.
In order to ameliorate the racist notion of the white American showing up his darker skinned challengers at their own game, the movie foregrounds Hopkins’ own mixed-blood status. The child of a U.S. cavalryman father and a Native American mother, Hopkins has lived his life passing for white, but has never felt fully comfortable in the dominant culture. He exists in a netherworld between his two heritages, and his journey to the Middle East and the challenges he faces there are as much about his need to embrace his own blood as they are about the $10,000 prize he’ll win if he crosses the finish line first.
Screenwriter John Fusco, who has dealt with these themes before in his scripts for Thunderheart (1992) and even Young Guns (1988), focuses the movie’s early passages on Hopkins’ uneasiness in his own skin, using the Indian massacre at Wounded Knee Creek as a way to show both the barbarity of the U.S. Government’s war on the Indians and Hopkins’ reluctance to identify with the victims. Retreating into himself, he works as a showman in Buffalo Bill’s (J.K. Simmons) Wild West Show, his constant drunkenness indicative of his deep-seated guilt in being part of the wholesale commodification of his people’s slaughter.
Once in the Middle East, though, the movie shifts fully into exotic action-adventure mode, with Hopkins, who everybody calls “Cowboy,” riding against more than 100 other fierce competitors, not to mention the scorching desert landscape. The Arab world is presented as desolate and primitive, which might be construed as racist if the United States hadn’t been portrayed as so thoughtlessly barbaric. Hopkins’ competitors are a mixed bag; most despise the Western “infidel” and his mutt of a horse for even daring to compete in such a race, although he begrudgingly earns the respect of at least a few of them. Chief among these is the wealthy Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), who oversees the race and at one point almost has Hopkins castrated for cavorting with his daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), a proto-feminist who detests her second-class status. Jazira’s girl power is weakened, however, by a mid-narrative plot detour that involves her being kidnapped by one of the Sheikh’s rivals and Hopkins having to rescue her.
Director Joe Johnston, a protégé of George Lucas who has helmed such fare as October Sky (1999) and Jurassic Park III (2001), plays the movie straight, and if his action sequences are not terribly rousing, he does a fantastic job building genuine sentiment into the movie’s core relationship between Hopkins and Hidalgo (who he rightfully calls “brother”). For all the sound of fury of much of the movie’s narrative (a massive sandstorm! hidden traps in the sand! a swarm of locusts! angry sword-swinging Arab raiders!), it is at its most effective when it distills everything down to the love story between a man and his horse. Granted, it gets a bit overblown when Hopkins, near death in the desert and within seconds of giving Hidalgo a mercy-killing bullet to the brain, has a hazy Indian vision that miraculously instills both him and the horse with sudden vitality. But, that caveat aside, it is the purity of the unspoken relationship between man and horse that oils the movie’s old-fashioned gears and gives the race meaning. Everything else is just noise.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright ©2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution