Disney riding for a fall
By ANDREW GUMBEL
Once upon a time, a fabled horseman from the Wild West accepted an unusual challenge from a Middle Eastern businessman and rode his American mustang to victory against the odds in an extraordinary 4800km Arabian desert race known as the Ocean of Fire.
That, at least, is the "true story" touted by Walt Disney as the basis for Hidalgo. In the United States, the premise is certainly bringing in audiences beguiled by its old-fashioned adventurism and derring-do sensibility. But it has also triggered a cultural row of rare intensity, as historians, Native Americans and Arab and Muslim interest groups have all piled into Disney, accusing the company of giving credence to outrageous fabrications in the interests of promoting crude American cultural imperialism and making a fast buck.
"Pony baloney," one critic has called it. "Liar, liar, chaps on fire," intoned another.
The film stars Viggo Mortensen - fresh from his triumph in Lord of the Rings - as the horseman, Frank Hopkins, who conquers the Middle East and his 100 competing Bedouin riders with the sort of ease and bravado the US military now hunkered down in Iraq can only fantasise about.
The historical Hopkins, whose memoirs form the basis for the film script, claimed to have been the son of a Sioux princess, a US Cavalry rider from the age of 12, a witness to the massacre at Wounded Knee, a buddy of both Black Elk, the Indian chieftain, and President Teddy Roosevelt, the champion of hundreds of endurance races including a 3200km marathon from Texas to Vermont, and a regular performer in Buffalo Bill's touring Wild West show.
It was while performing with Buffalo Bill in Paris in 1889, he claimed, that an Aden-based businessman, Rau Rasmussen, invited him to compete in the Ocean of Fire, a 1000-year-old race across Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter and up through Mesopotamia into Syria. Despite the harshness of the terrain and the physical disadvantages of his horse - the eponymous Hidalgo - he crossed the finishing line in 68 days, anywhere between one and two days ahead of the nearest competition. The film, naturally, makes the finale a lot tighter.
The problem is, Frank Hopkins was almost certainly a fabulator and a confidence man whose tales of heroic deeds astride his beloved mustangs - or just about anywhere else, for that matter - were little more than tall stories. There is no mention of him in US Cavalry records, or in accounts of the Battle of Wounded Knee, or in the extensive records of Buffalo Bill's travelling show. His name does not crop up in Teddy Roosevelt's voluminous correspondence. There is no evidence the Texas-Vermont race was even run. He was never photographed in the saddle, except as an old man "re-enacting" the exploits of his youth.
As for the Ocean of Fire, it, too, appears not to have taken place, either in 1890 or in any other year of its supposedly glorious 1000-year history. The notion of a 3000-mile race from Yemen to Syria is in itself laughable. As the Arab News newspaper wrote, a race of that length starting in Aden would finish up "somewhere in Romania".
Much of the damning evidence against Hopkins has been unearthed by an equestrian exploration group called the Long Riders' Guild, which got wind of the Disney film early in the production process and took huge offence at the notion of a big-budget production glorifying a horseback exploit that never took place.
"This movie is a massive distortion of history, which further degrades the reputation of the Walt Disney company," the guild's founders, Basha and CuChullaine O'Reilly, charge.
They recruited more than 70 academics and experts to look further into the historical record and expose Frank Hopkins as a hoaxer. The fact that Disney has bought into Hopkins' fantasies, all the while promoting them as an "incredible true story" in its trailers, has touched countless cultural raw nerves. One of the world's leading Native American scholars, Vine Deloria of the University of Colorado, is furious at the uncritical repetition of Hopkins' claims about his role in Sioux history. He wrote: "Hopkins' claims are so outrageously false that one wonders why Disney were attracted to this material at all - except of course the constant propensity to make money under any conditions available."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, meanwhile, has written to Disney to complain of negative stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs in the film.
Disney's response to this barrage of criticism has been awkward, not to say contradictory. The film's screenwriter, John Fusco, clings to the notion his story is based on rigorously checked historical sources, and has even started a website in his own defence. Disney's executive director of international publicity, Nina Heyn, in an apparent moment of unguarded honesty last year, said "no one here really cares about the historical aspects" - a line the company has been careful not to repeat since.
The company has a large investment to protect - $80 million in production costs alone - at a time when Disney has been mired in controversy and chief executive Michael Eisner has faced revolt from his shareholders and from Roy Disney.
The film's release date has been postponed twice - perhaps because of the awkward resonances of last year's Iraq war, when it was originally set to hit cinemas. A tale of conquest of the Orient, based on entirely false pretences ... now where have we heard that one before?
Published in The Independent, 10th March 2004 and in The New Zealand Herald,
18th March 2004.