Based on the legendary exploits of endurance rider Frank T. Hopkins, this old-fashioned boys' adventure pits a cowboy and his scrubby little pinto — the titular Hidalgo — against a field of Bedouin riders and pure-blooded Arabian horses in the grueling desert marathon known as the "Ocean of Fire." Think SEABISCUIT crossed with THE LAST SAMURAI (both...read more
Based on the legendary exploits of endurance rider Frank T. Hopkins, this old-fashioned boys' adventure pits a cowboy and his scrubby little pinto — the titular Hidalgo — against a field of Bedouin riders and pure-blooded Arabian horses in the grueling desert marathon known as the "Ocean of Fire." Think SEABISCUIT crossed with THE LAST SAMURAI (both 2003). Pony Express rider Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) spirals into a drunken decline after delivering the dispatch that precipitates the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee Creek, S.D. The tormented Hopkins, a world-class equestrian, washes up in Buffalo Bill's (J.K. Simmons) Wild West Show, where Cody's grandiloquent claims on behalf of Hopkins and Hidalgo come to the attention of Arabian Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif). Riyadh, whose family pride is inextricably linked with its magnificent purebred horses, issues a put-up-or-shut-up challenge to Hopkins and his mongrel mustang. Since Hopkins isn't the sort of man who takes insults to his horse lying down, the two of them are soon en route to Aden, Arabia, to compete in a heavily symbolic test of royal blood versus self-made-in-America pluck. The supporting cast is a riot of stock exotic characters, verging on the offensively stereotypical. There are sneering princes of the desert who can't believe an infidel and his impure horse are sullying the race; a scheming English aristocrat (Louise Lombard); Riyadh's rebellious daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson); and various colorful goatherds, slaves, brigands and devoted family retainers. Unlike Seabiscuit's match-race victory against the imperious War Admiral in 1938, the outcome of Hidalgo's race against the snooty Arabians isn't a matter of pop-culture history. That's good for a historically based movie — real-life underdogs don't always win — but leads directly to the authenticity issue that dogs the film. Screenwriter John Fusco claims to have invested years of research in uncovering Hopkins' story, but bitter controversy surrounds the long rider and his painted pony. A dearth of historical evidence supporting Hopkins' legend lends credence to debunkers who've branded him a pathological liar and dispute everything from his birthplace to his claim that his mother was Sioux to the very existence of the Ocean of Fire; some doubt there was even a Hidalgo. This doesn't make Fusco's tale of a scrappy little horse that could any less engaging or rousing, but it does make it less than true. Mortensen's charisma makes Hopkins' "aw-shucks, ma'am" mannerisms surprisingly palatable, but he's still in constant danger of losing the spotlight to the personable Hidalgo.
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