A Review of Hidalgo
by Cynthia Culbertson
I distinctly recall the first time I saw a trailer advertising the Disney film “Hidalgo.” For a moment I thought that human levitation was actually possible – that’s just how fast and far I rose out of my comfy chair in utter disbelief. “Based on the Incredible True Story of Frank T. Hopkins,” said the words across the screen, yet it seemed impossible that any portion of what I had just seen was based on historical fact. A world famous American endurance rider on a pinto mustang named Hidalgo competing in a centuries old race across Arabia called the “Ocean of Fire?” For someone with a lifelong addiction to horses, not to mention many years of devoted research on the Bedouins, I was astonished that I had never encountered this story.
I have a love-hate relationship with the internet, but admitting the possibility that I had failed to ferret out a vital Arabic manuscript, I did what we all must do occasionally – I “Googled” – and confirmed my deepest fears. Claiming that “Hidalgo” is based on a true story is about as believable as Disney saying that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs actually lived in Lithuania during the mid-15th century.
Just reading about the adventures of Frank T. Hopkins is a skeptic’s dream. His mother was the proverbial Indian Princess; he witnessed the massacre at Wounded Knee; he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as one of its stars; he won more than 400 cross-country endurance races; and oh yeah, he knew Wild Bill Hickok, Geronimo, and you-guessed-it – Billy the Kid. Surely this would be enough to send anyone running for historical verification. Except, of course, a Disney screenwriter. As several university professors, documentarians, and western historians discovered, the sad truth is that Frank T. Hopkins was from New York City, not Wyoming. His employment records show a stint as a ditch digger and Ringling Brothers horse handler, while the archives at the Buffalo Bill Museum show no one by his name ever employed by the famous Wild West Show. One by one, his fantastic claims, including the existence of a mustang named Hidalgo, are confirmed to be just so much hot air – hot air he never breathed in the Arabian desert.
As for the movie? Well, I vowed to let it stand on its own merits, despite the ridiculous claim of being based on truth. After all, the story line has all the elements of a great adventure yarn – a half-Indian cowboy, haunted by the massacre at Wounded Knee, joins the Wild West Show as the world’s greatest endurance rider, and then accepts the challenge of an Arab sheikh to compete in the longest and most grueling horse race ever devised. The plot is thickened by the sheikh’s beautiful and headstrong young daughter, a wealthy Englishwoman seeking to win the race, an evil kidnapper, and, of course, the treacherous desert over which the race takes place. Yet somehow, while “Hidalgo” succeeds at times, it simply doesn’t deliver – the characters are shallow clichés, the race depressingly boring, the fight scenes predictable, and the humor largely ineffectual.
Of course Hollywood loves to portray Arabs in the most stereotypical way, and “Hidalgo” does not disappoint in this regard. Since Disney didn’t bother to check out the Frank T. Hopkins story, it comes as no surprise that they didn’t check the facts concerning the culture, religion, and horses of the Arabs, either. I stopped counting the fatal mistakes about ten minutes into the desert part of the film, but just to name a few, the desert depicted isn’t Arabia – it’s North Africa; the horses aren’t Arabian, they are Barbs (ironically the ancestors of the Mustang); the plural of Bedouin isn’t Bedowi (actually Bedouin IS plural); and Muslims can only have four wives, not five. Not to mention the reason the Arabs dislike a pinto or paint horse is not solely a purist ideology as portrayed in the film, but also that their white skin burns to a crisp under the desert sun. Think of it this way – if your life depended upon a horse would you want to risk it on a UV compromised equine? Oh, and the race ends in Damascus, where Hopkins and Hidalgo take a brief dip in the Mediterranean after the grueling finish. Woops! Check your maps all you geography fans!
It’s true that Viggo Mortensen, fresh from his success as Aragorn in “Lord of the Rings” is a credible cowboy with his rugged good looks and obvious riding ability. Yet unlike his role in the Tolkien trilogy, he appears limited by the script to no more than three facial expressions. In fact, it often seems his equine co-star, Hidalgo, a handsome Overo Paint, is capable of more emotion. To give Disney a teensy bit of credit, however, someone in the research department was busy basing the character of Englishwoman Lady Anne Davenport on a combination of the wonderful Lady Anne Blunt, the first western woman to explore central Arabia, and Homer Davenport, an American who went to Syria in search of fine Arabian horses. If, however, the gracious and scholarly Lady Anne Blunt could see her namesake in “Hidalgo” (portrayed as a woman who wants to win the famous race so badly she offers her favors to the stoic Hopkins), she would undoubtedly rise up from the grave and join Roy Disney in the fight against Michael Eisner.
Despite some wonderful desert scenery and the uplifting sight of mustangs galloping across the American prairie at the end of the film, “Hidalgo” simply isn’t a winner. Even at the conclusion Disney persists in its ludicrous claim of historical truth, proclaiming that the bloodlines of the famous Hidalgo exist today in a mustang herd in Oklahoma (pretty hard for a fictional horse to leave descendants, eh?) But if “Hidalgo” has one high point it is the indomitable Omar Sharif as Sheikh Riyadh. He clearly gives Disney their money’s worth, delivering the most credible acting performance in the film. Not only that, but at age 71 he still has the best set of male eyes that ever graced the silver screen.
My recommendation? If you’re in the mood for an action/adventure flick, check out “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” If you’re after an exciting and well-crafted horse movie, go rent “Seabiscuit.” After all, it really IS based on an incredible true story.
Cynthia Culbertson holds a degree in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from Indiana University, where she specialized in the Arabic Language and Islamic religion. In addition to her academic knowledge of the history, literature, and culture of the Arabs, she spent over a decade living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.