Hidalgo is one of those movies that claim to be “inspired by a true story,” but I’d be surprised if any more than 10% of it was actually true. Viggo Mortensen plays Frank Hopkins, a Pony Express courier who also works part time in Buffalo Bill’s Traveling Sideshow. He’s not happy with his life, partially because he has bad memories of the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek, where many of his friends and loved ones perished. Hopkins’ favorite part of life is his horse Hidalgo, a wild stallion he rides in long-distance races. Together, they have achieved much notoriety.
So much, in fact, that Hopkins receives an invitation from Saudi Arabia’s Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) to participate in a grueling 3,000 mile race across the Saudi desert. Once there, he and his horse become the subject of ridicule from the other riders. After all, they ride the finest thoroughbred horses the world has to offer, whereas Hopkins rides an untamed mustang. His chief rival in the race is a horse owned by Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard). She will do anything to make sure her horse crosses the finish line first, even if that means resorting to underhanded methods.
During his time in Saudi Arabia, Hopkins is frequently interrupted from the race. Among other things, he must take time to rescue the Sheikh’s daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) from the clutches of some baddies. He also faces a sand storm, a plague of insects, and the wrath of the Sheikh himself, who comes to believe that Hopkins is trying to deflower his innocent daughter.
I guess the biggest problem I had with Hidalgo is that the race itself seems almost like an afterthought. It takes the better part of 40 minutes before the race itself even begins, and then it proves to be considerably less than exciting. Although it sounds good in premise, a 3,000 mile race takes weeks. We therefore get shots of the riders shooting out of the gate, then ultimately slowing down to a nice trot. They also take a lot of breaks so they can sleep, get water, and whatever else. I have no problem with the film showing us the realities of such a contest, but there’s no tension involved in it. We don’t have any stake in who wins or loses, possibly because we are only introduced to two horses: Hidalgo and the one belonging to Lady Davenport. It does not help matters that the story keeps sidetracking itself into other things (such as Jazira’s rescue). It’s difficult to generate interest in a race when so many other things vie for screen time.
The picture is also pretty talky. I found myself looking at my watch a lot. All the stuff with Hopkins and Lady Davenport is rather dry, as is the flirtation between Hopkins and Jazira. What I wanted to see was horse racing and action, not endless scenes of people sitting around a desert gabbing. You’d be surprised how long some of the stretches of non-action are. Maybe things would have seemed livelier with a different star. I’m not criticizing Viggo Mortensen (whom I like); I’m merely suggesting that his laconic, brooding style of acting is perhaps not the best match with the material. I wish he had popped out of the scenery a little more. It might have given the talky parts a sense of urgency.
Despite some substantial flaws that drag it down, there are also things to like in Hidalgo. Omar Sharif is very good playing the Sheikh. (Of course, he knows a thing or two about acting in the desert.) I like the way his relationship with Hopkins goes from being adversarial to cooperative to friendly. They have a nice character arc together.
The last 40 minutes of the film pick up considerably. Lady Davenport’s henchmen set traps in the desert for Hopkins and Hidalgo. One of them involves pushing them into giant pits they have dug. Then they unleash a couple of nasty tigers. Later, Hopkins gets stuck in the hottest part of the desert where, as they say, men lose their minds. The picture really gains momentum here as we finally develop an inkling of why long-distance races, especially through the desert, were so grueling. Of course, parts of the finale are pretty hard to swallow; they’re obviously moments manufactured for a film as opposed to being based in fact. But so what – they work to build excitement and interest. The whole movie should have been as the last 40 minutes are.
I like the ending too. Frank Hopkins, depending on whom you talk to, may or may not have been the hero he’s made out to be here. He did, however, take important steps in preserving the wild mustangs. As an animal lover, I found it hard not to be moved by the final images of so many beautiful horses running free.
My ultimate take on Hidalgo was mixed. I liked parts of it, but the whole never gels into anything special. The last time I really felt this way about a movie was at Pirates of the Caribbean, and we all know I was in the minority on that one. Perhaps others will find more consistent pleasure in Hidalgo than I did. A final thought, one that pretty much sums up the weaknesses of the movie for me: I never once felt like I knew this horse. Last July, I saw Seabiscuit and felt like the horse was a 3-dimensional character within the story. He had a heart, a personality, and a soul. I rooted for him. Hidalgo (in this film) never seems to have much spark. The filmmakers must have forgotten that the horse was supposed to be the center of the story. I know Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit was a friend of mine. Hidalgo is no Seabiscuit.
( 1/2 out of four)
Hidalgo is rated PG-13 for adventure violence and some mild innuendo. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.
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