The Long Riders' Guild
'Hidalgo': Caught Horse-Thieving
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2004; Page C01
Please, anything but "Lawrence of Arabia." These were my thoughts
watching "Hidalgo," which
- among a host of other creative misdemeanors - tries to download the
cinematic lore of David Lean's fabulous desert classic for free.
This movie, about a horse race that takes place
over 3,000 miles of scorched Arabian sands, brings us herds of gorgeous Arabian
stallions. We get miles of picturesque dunes. There are oases, sandstorms and
camels. There is quicksand. We even get Omar Sharif, Peter O'Toole's princely
co-star in "Lawrence." And I swear composer James Newton Howard helped himself
to a little of Maurice Jarre's score for the 1962 film.
But "Lawrence" this ain't; not by a long shot,
and certainly not by a dromedary's nose hair. If it weren't for Sharif's
extraordinary presence, there wouldn't be a cherishable moment in the movie.
In the 1890s, legendary long-distance horse racer
Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen at his unkingly worst), who was also a
dispatch rider for the U.S. Cavalry, is haunted by the senseless killing of
Native Americans at Wounded Knee Creek. He has become a broken, tippling
performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
Word of his prowess as a competitive horse racer has reached the Arabian
world, however. The wealthy Sheikh Riyadh (Sharif) invites him to compete in the
"Ocean of Fire" race, which means pitting Frank's mustang, Hidalgo, against the
purebreds of Arabia in a race from Aden to Damascus. This competition, which is
attracting other foreign interests, offers a big purse. Frank and Hidalgo, who
have yet to lose a race in America, take the next ship east.
("Hidalgo" surely wasn't pilfering from "The Last Samurai," which came out
only a few months ago, but this early chapter has more than a few passing
similarities to it: former U.S. Cavalryman Tom Cruise -- also deep in his cups
over tragic Anglo-Native American skirmishes -- heads east to help a Japanese
emperor fight renegade warriors.)
A product of the New World, Frank has mixed
ancestry; his father was white, his mother Native American. In the movies, we
know what this means: He's got the native know-how. He can feel things a
white man can't. He can hear the call of the ancient . . . okay, you get the
But wait, there's stand-up-and-cheeringly more: Frank's mustang is also a
mixed breed. Taking Hidalgo to this long-distance meet of elites is worse than
showing up at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show with a one-legged mutt called
Hey, wait a minute: Bones wins Best in Show! What's the number for
Frank and his horse find themselves in a society of people who still keep
chained slaves, whose women are forced to hide their faces, and who are not
afraid to signal their superiority over the half-breed horse and rider. Thus we
have New World self-determinism versus Old World vested tyranny and purism.
(Download count thus far: "Lawrence," "Last Samurai" and "Seabiscuit." And
it must be sheer coincidence that screenwriter John Fusco happened to write
"Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.")
To avoid any sense that the movie is anti-Arab, there are more than enough
villains from English-speaking corners, including Lady Anne Davenport (Louise
Lombard), who's trying to fix the race in favor of her rider. And before Frank
begins the race, he starts up a friendship with Sheikh Riyadh's daughter Jazira
(Zuleikha Robinson), who has been seeking her father's approval for years. He
even finds time to rescue her from a kidnapping.
Incidentally, Disney claims "Hidalgo" is a true story, based on the
extremely fanciful writings of the real Frank T. Hopkins. If you believe that,
then you are probably also wondering how the race turns out.
Speaking of Best in Show, Sharif's pedigree is the only great thing here.
He makes a warm, engaging sheikh. And when he invites Frank into his tent and
starts a series of entertaining, cross-cultural conversations about his society,
the Koran and Frank's long-shot odds, he stirs up memories of those wonderful
tent-huddle scenes between T.E. Lawrence and Feisal (Alec Guinness) in
Alas, memories are all this movie can stir.
Hidalgo (145 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for
violence (including the killing, spearing and castration of horses) and some
mild sexual innuendo.