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The American Astronaut

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Hidalgo is loosely based on the somewhat true-life adventures of Frank T. Hopkins, a messenger in the cavalry and a member of Buffalo Bill’s posse. Even with an untamed mustang as its title character, though, this film could use a lot more giddy-up in its horse power.

Far Rider

David Lean would be dismayed by the use of artificial filtering and CG animals
David Lean would be dismayed by the use of artificial filtering and CG animals
DVD edition is sparse, and the movie could use a little work too
DVD edition is sparse, and the movie could use a little work too

Hopkins is an honorable man; he’s a cowboy with Sioux blood and a heart and soul of pure gold. After witnessing the massacre of his tribe at Wounded Knee, he is intent on making amends with his fellow Sioux.

As fate would have it, opportunity falls into Hopkins’ lap in the guise of the Great Horse Race of the Bedouin, a 3,000-mile trek by horseback across the Arabian Desert, passing through territories including Iraq and Damascus. A handsome cash prize falls to the winner and Hopkins, famed for his long-distance racing skills, could certainly use the proceeds.

Viggo Mortensen has traded in his recent playboy roles in films like A Perfect Murder and the remake of Psycho for soulful, earnest men like Aragorn, the king of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Swap his fluent Elvish for an impressive stab at the language of the Sioux and the result is Frank Hopkins. In any role, Mortensen is good and he lends to Hidalgo a sincerity and earnestness that the material doesn’t deserve.

As for Hidalgo himself, he’s an aging, untamed Spanish mustang with some fight still left in him. He’s also Hopkins’ ticket to ride.

Horsing Around

Amidst the thunder of horses’ hooves and the zing of gunshot, the loudest noise coming from Hidalgo is that generated by David Lean rolling over in his grave. No doubt the master of the cinematic epic would be dismayed by the use of artificial filtering to redden the desert sands and skies and, even worse, the use of computer-generated cheetahs and horses.

While Hidalgo does boast a few fleeting moments of true epic sweep, too often director Joe Johnston (Jumanji) turns to the easy tricks of the modern-day Hollywood trade and adds glaring artificiality where none is needed.

On the bight side, Omar Sharif brings the same elegance and suave demeanor to the “Sheikh of Sheikhs,” Sheikh Riyadh, that he brought to Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish 42 years ago in Lawrence of Arabia.

Even with Mortensen and Sharif so successfully fleshing out their roles, the story buries itself in silly subplots that ultimately take center stage and push the race itself into second place. The most contrived thread involves attempts to murder Hopkins along the 3,000 mile trek. Apparently all is fair in love, war, and horse racing.

Further congesting the film’s pace is a subplot involving Riyadh’s daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson, Timecode). Jazira needs Hopkins to win the race, thereby dissolving a pledge to marry a man she can’t stand, who also happens to be the odds-on favorite to win. It’s as if the burden of repaying his tribe back home weren’t enough pressure for Hopkins.

Let My Horses Go!

Hidalgo is merely inspired by true-life events; most of the film’s content is pure Hollywood contrivance.

There was indeed a Great Horse Race of the Bedouin in 1890 and it did feature a competition among 100 racers and 3,000 miles. In reality, the race took 68 days. But, unlike the film’s shameless photo-finish climax, second place came in a full 33 hours after the victor. Aside from that, the known facts surrounding the event are limited. The film tries to cover a lot of ground, including cultural clashes amongst cowboys, Native Americans, and Bedouin. In the early going, the story feels like it will gel together nicely, particularly when stars of the era, including Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, make cameo appearances.

Unfortunately, what starts off as something of a lark gets weighed down by its own pretensions. The end result is not nearly as fun – or inspiring – as it should have been.

At one point, the spirits of Hopkins’ Sioux family visit him in the burning wasteland of the Arabian Desert. While those spirits were able to find Hopkins, the true spirit of adventure repeatedly eludes the film itself.