Mild Oats

Aragorn—oops, I mean Viggo—takes to the desert, following some very unreliable tracks.

I'll bet Disney's Touchstone Pictures thought it had a Seabiscuit-ish sure bet with Hidalgo (which opens Friday, March 5, at the Metro and others). It's the alleged true story of Frank T. Hopkins, a part-Indian cowboy who witnessed the Wounded Knee massacre, performed with Buffalo Bill Cody, and rode his beloved mustang, Hidalgo, to big-time prize money in the 3,000-mile "Ocean of Fire" race across the shimmering sands of the Arabian Peninsula in 1890. Like Seabiscuit, Hidalgo was a long-shot competitor, despised by snooty rival Arabian breeders for his impure blood. Yes, this is another movie about an under-horse.

Yet a recent Los Angeles Times exposé reveals the story is all horseshit and no horse. Hopkins was a non-Indian East Coast con man who never met Cody, never saw Wounded Knee, nor rode Hidalgo in the Ocean of Fire race because there was no such race, ever. He apparently invented the mustang Hidalgo after reading about a famous Thoroughbred named Hidalgo.

Despite such piebald lineage, Hidalgo turns out to be not such a bad movie. Stepping down from his noble Aragorn role, Viggo Mortensen unclenches his sphincter, goes all bowlegged, and has some comfy, down-home fun as cowpoke Hopkins. At first, you think you're seeing The Last Samurai all over again: After Wounded Knee, Hopkins becomes a drunk, corrupt myth monger in a Wild West show; then he's rescued by an out-of-nowhere opportunity in the mysterious East. Most of the film has a cornball ironic, faux old-fashioned feel, as Hopkins rides across picturesque desert, bonding with his horse and, to a lesser extent, the dishy daughter (Zuleikha Robinson) of a Wild West–obsessed sheikh (Omar Sharif, also currently on view in Monsieur Ibrahim).

Hopkins takes time out from the race to escape a remarkably unrealistic CG sandstorm and to rescue Dishy Sheikh's Daughter from kidnappers hired by a wicked English aristo-villain. "Why are you risking your life for me?" asks the Dish. "My horse likes you," quips Hopkins. But her dad doesn't like Hopkins when he catches him in her tent. Will the sheikh's scimitar turn Hopkins from stallion to gelding? Will Hidalgo put the concept of racial purity to shame? Will the cheerfully retrograde, Road to Morocco–style ethnic caricatures piss off Arabs as much as The Passion of the Christ's Jews piss off real Jews?

Hidalgo might have been an interesting movie had it celebrated its hero's fraudulence, like Little Big Man. As it is, it's a mildly good ride.

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