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 picture.

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 Bones.

Hey, wait a minute: Bones wins Best in Show! What's the number for Touchstone Pictures?

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 "Lawrence."

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.

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