Hidalgo

March, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Joe Johnston

Starring:Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson, Saïd Taghmaoui, Harsh Nayyar, and Louise Lombard

Remember old westerns, the ones in which the Indians were invariably bloodthirsty savages, with superstitious religious beliefs and a great tendency to be both childish and fiendish at the same time?  A couple of generations of white Americans grew up with those celluloid stereotypes, which lasted until the genre exhausted itself and the film industry went on to misrepresent other ethnic groups, (most recently people with Arab/Islamic backgrounds) while professing a new-found sympathy for native peoples, (Dances With Wolves) that borders on the sanctimonious. It has taken the questionable genius of director Joe Johnston, (The Rocketeer, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III) and screenwriter John Fusco to fuse the worst of these cinematic traditions in Hidalgo, a handsomely shot action film which manages to be condescending to this country's first inhabitants while simultaneously depicting the Arab peoples of the Middle East as exotic but deeply flawed aborigines. Hooray for Hollywood…. 

The movie supposedly traces the adventures of one Frank Hopkins, a military dispatch rider for the U.S. Cavalry during the last decade of the 19th century who became a successful competitor in long-distance horse races. Hopkins ability to fabricate grandiose stories of his exploits on horseback became in time more legendary that his equestrian skills, but the makers of Hidalgo, knowing the American appetite for jingoistic horse manure, treat their subject with heroic seriousness, constructing their story around a competition set in Saudi Arabia that pits Hopkins' under-sized mustang against bigger, pure-bred Arabian stallions in an endurance test across the desert. As an unofficial representative of his country, the director presents Hopkins as a cowboy of the William S. Hart variety: plainspoken, courteous to women, kind to children, (especially those of darker skin) and a thoroughly decent, if slightly grungy, salt-of-the earth cowboy. (It goes without saying that he repeatedly talks to his horse, who regards him with the sort of weary patience Trigger used on Roy Rogers.) 

During the unfolding of this arduous challenge, Hopkins, (played with an appealing if casual laziness by Viggo Mortensen) must rescue a damsel in distress, spurn the advances of a conniving English woman bent on adulterous adventure, rescue a competitor from quicksand, perform surgery on his mount and debate the proper role of the fairer sex with the competition's sponsor, Sheikh Riyadh, (Omar Sharif) who has a passion for dime novels and Colt 45's, (the pistol, not the malt liquor). Oh, and win the race, (which takes weeks to complete) in a three-way photo finish…(The competition by the way, is supposed to have covered 3000 miles, something of a feat when you consider that such a course, begun in the Saudi Arabian desert and heading north towards Damascus, would wind up in Scandinavia were it as lengthy as advertised.) Alas, these plot machinations conspire to give Hidalgo all the plausibility of an installment in the Steven Spielberg/Indiana Jones series.

Cinematographer Shelly Johnson makes wonderful use of the South Dakota and Moroccan locations where Hidalgo was filmed; stunning shots of falcons in flight and a pair of murderous leopards at work make for some compelling scenes, but at more than 2 and a quarter hours in length, this movie sags under the weight of its half-baked plot and one-dimensional characters. The cast, lead horse and rider excepted, are ciphers save for Sharif, whose considerable skills are put at the service of a persona so hopelessly stereotypical it borders on the ludicrous; oily, macho, religiously naïve and above all, hopelessly in thrall of the American culture of his era, at least as it's conceived by Johnston & Co. To see this talented actor, (remember his stunning work in Lawrence of Arabia?) makes you realize just how badly even good actors depend on decent scripts.

Should kids see this movie? It's rated PG-13; yet at the performance I attended, the audience contained lots of pre-pubescent eyeballs. What they see is a typically cynical example of U.S. mass-media entertainment, in which sex is winked at because it's dirty, violence is justified as the only manly way to settle disputes, and American-style rugged individualism represents the only way one can lead a fully valid life. If you want your children to see this one, take them yourself so you can correct their young, impressionable minds about the kind of racial/ethnic misperceptions that filled my generation's screen fantasies not so many years ago. 

Is Hildago exciting to watch? You bet. Does it teach its viewers anything? Absolutely. Are those lessons worthy of your time and attention? As we used to say on the farm back in Indiana, not hardly. 

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