Film Review of Hidalgo (2004)

September 24, 2016

Race Film

Once upon a time there was a washed up soldier whose one great gift was an unusual affinity he had with his horse. The man and the horse entered race after race and won them. In the off season, they performed in Wild Bill Hickock’s Wild West Show, where they did feats so impressive that nobody could tell that the man was drunk out of his mind. One day a great Arabic sultan heard of their reputation and invited him to ride in the longest, most grueling horse race in the world, The Ocean of Fire. Though he was an inferior human being and his horse wasn’t a fancy purebred, he was American and he had more spunk, plus a lot of inspiration from his Sioux ancestors, so of course he won the race, the respect of the Sultan, the affection (if not true love) of the Sultan’s daughter, and the bajillion dollar prize money.

That about covers the plot of Hidalgo…which is the name of the horse, not the man. The man’s name is Frank Hopkins, and his true story is the basis of this epic film. It’s an epic film because it has big scenery.

Of course, that’s the film. The life of Frank T. Hopkins is much more interesting and much more controversial. Many equestrian societies credit him with being the most significant force behind the preservation of the Spanish mustang, a breed of horse that had been in American since the Spanish arrived in the late 1400’s. The mustang was dying out along with the buffalo and the old Native American tribes, but Hopkins’ advocacy, along with his notoriety as a distance racer, helped preserve the breed. Many current riders consider him the father of modern distance riding.

There are, however, many people who say that the legend of Frank Hopkins is so much blarney, made up chiefly by Hopkins himself. They say there is no evidence he ever competed in the 3000 mile Ocean of Fire-some even say there’s no evidence that such a race ever existed. But that’s beside the point. Because Hopkins’ stories were fabulously entertaining, and they gave him the cultural leverage he would need in his fight for the mustang.

Also, they make a pretty good movie. There’s nothing surprising or particularly suspenseful about this movie, but it does have a good cast, led by Viggo Mortensen as Hopkins, and including Omar Sharif as the sheikh caught between the old world and the new, and J.K. Simmons as an exasperated but supportive Hickock. There’s even a little unresolved and forbidden sexual tension between Mortensen and the sheikh’s daughter, played by Zuleika Robinson.

The most interesting piece is to watch Hopkins struggle with the conflict between his Sioux and White heritages, but even that seems tacked on to give the story some depth. In the end, this is a well-made but predictable and formulaic movie. Fortunately, it’s a formula we enjoy.

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