Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Hidalgo

Film Review: Hidalgo

Hidalgo (2004; Directed by Joe Johnston)

Like most Hollywood epics, particularly those “based on a true story”, Hidalgo is patently a fantasy. It begins with a bedrock of Old West myths, Native American and Arabian stereotypes, and ingrained conceptions of ruggedly individualistic American identity as opposed to the rigid hereditary class structure of the Old World. Upon this foundation, it layers horseback heroics, gunplay and hand-to-hand combat, and backstabbing desert intrigue, with a lacquered coat of gorgeously-shot landscapes. Hidalgo is sweeping, confidently old-fashioned Hollywood dream-crafting, with much of the good and much of the bad that has tended to entail.

Given these forefront and background elements, it should be no surprise that Hidalgo was directed by Joe Johnston, who cut his filmmaking teeth on the effects and art direction teams of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for the inherently nostalgic Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies. Johnston’s own films (The Rocketeer and Captain America: The First Avenger, I’m thinking of particularly) have often been characterized by a similar obsession with the past, with a perspective that seeks to slice through the tangled Gordian knots of American history with broad strokes of cinematic mythmaking. Hidalgo fits this model nicely, especially as its purportedly “true” story is itself almost certainly a self-aggrandizing myth invented by its protagonist.

That protagonist is Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a legendary distance racer and Western dispatch rider whose claim to have participated in a 3,000-mile ceremonial ride in the Arabian peninsula provides the fodder for Hidalgo‘s widescreen fantasy of a prestigious desert race called the Ocean of Fire, contended by owners and riders of the finest-bred Arabian horses in the Middle East for a lucrative reward. Although it is referred to as having a thousand-year history, no such race ever existed in Arabia or anywhere else. Due to be lack of hard proof, this ride halfway across the world is commonly assumed to be one of Hopkins’ fabulous fabrications from his autobiographical memoir. These fabrications include a win record of 400 long-distance riding races, a role in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (his name does not appear in the Show’s archives, though he was a stunt rider for the Ringling Brother Circus), and Lakota ancestry. He even claimed to have been born in 1865, allowing for his frontier exploits in the prime years of the Old West, rather than 1893, as his Pennsylvania birth records would have it.

So Frank Hopkins invented a series of impossible exploits, and Johnston, screenwriter John Fusco, and producing studio Disney elect to take him at face value. Or they do so just enough to drop $40 million on a perfectly enjoyable (if occasionally clunky and deluded) popcorn flick, anyway. If that commitment in addition to a “Based on a True Story” onscreen title in the opening moments might potentially offend some observers, you’ll have to look elsewhere for moral castigation.

Hidalgo takes Hopkins’ claim of being half-Lakota seriously, which could be a problem if it didn’t take it so seriously. Mortensen’s Hopkins speaks the Lakota language, understands and respects the Lakota culture, sympathizes deeply with the plight of the Lakota people, and even has a fleeting spiritual vision at a key juncture of the Ocean of Fire race. Fusco even places Hopkins at Wounded Knee before and after the 1890 massacre: he delivers the fateful orders to the officer monitoring the Lakota Sioux encampment, and is afterwards haunted by the slaughter. While performing in Buffalo Bill’s touring show, Hopkins dreams of Bill (J.K. Simmons) in the stands, shooting down Lakota below, a resonant metaphor of how the Old West mythos has contributed to a history of aboriginal displacement and even genocide. Hopkins’ claimed Lakota heritage is almost certainly an appropriation, but that appropriation is directed towards prefacing an epic blockbuster film with a deeply respectful sketch of the central tragedy of the Lakota people at its outset.

Leaving both that respect and Hidalgo‘s classic Western pastiche behind, the story soon moves to the Arabian desert for some Raiders of the Lost Ark derring-do and Lawrence of Arabia dunescapes. Hopkins and the titular mustang paint are lured from desultory faded fame in Buffalo Bill’s cavalcade to race through unfamiliar territory halfway around the world. The snobbish sheikhs and princes, stewards and riders of Arabian thoroughbreds with family trees of prestige second only to royal houses and prophets of Allah, look askance at this dusty mongrel rider and half-tamed mongrel horse. Were it not for the secret Wild West enthusiasm of the race’s overseer Sheikh Riyadh (the recently-passed Omar Sharif, cinching the Lawrence of Arabia callback), this infidel and his beast would likely not be allowed to race alongside such glorious horseflesh in the first place.

Johnston and Fusco wield all of these deep-seated class politics in the service of rooting interests alone; go elsewhere for social commentary of any stripe. Hopkins and Hidalgo satisfyingly chase down and beat a smug gentleman rider in an early sequence, and Hopkins even socks him in the kisser in a tavern afterwards, when the prig has the audacity to badmouth the bloodlines of the painted steed. There’s little doubt that this man-horse team will exact a similar comeuppance on these uppity blood-purity-obsessed desert aristocrats by the time this grueling race is over.

Hidalgo is not a mere racist colonial narrative of white hero vs. native villains: Riyadh is cultured, fair, and relatively open-minded, and his daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) strains against the Islamic yoke that her culture reserves for women. But there are some treacherous sand snakes at work too, including a traitorous advisor, a nephew with designs on Riyadh’s wealth and position, and a refined English lady who owns a top contending horse. Again, there is so little subtext to any of these characterizations that political implications (productive or offending) arrive stillborn, although the whiff of orientalism is in the air and the hostile takeover of the fine Arabian bloodlines schemed up by Lady Davenport (Louise Lombard) carries suggestions of the damaging inheritance of European imperialist meddling in the region.

More than anything, though, it is Hidalgo‘s star who stubbornly drags it towards a certain measure of respectability and transcendence of its core of melodramatic populism. Viggo Mortensen has just enough Method in him as an actor that he can’t help but approach any role, even one this silly and romanticized, with a dedicated seriousness of purpose. His Frank Hopkins is a plain-spoken, unreflective frontier rogue on the surface and maybe even several feet down, and Mortensen’s hoarse, grim whispered delivery and steely gaze imparts the proper casualness and even a hint of subversive wit. But Mortensen leans into the Lakota cultural elements as well as into the relationship with his remarkable horse until his performance seems almost to mean something.

Hidalgo is a fantastical retelling of a genuine tall tale, a myth of a myth, but it’s also a singular milestone in an interesting screen acting career. After gripping the screen as reluctant monarch-to-be and incomparable fighter Aragorn over the three-film length of The Lord of the Rings, Hollywood wanted to find out just what it had in this thoughtful but arresting multi-lingual Danish-American actor with oodles of leading man potential. Hidalgo with Mortensen as lead feels like an idea hatched after a viewing of the sequence in The Two Towers during which a half-alive Aragorn is rescued from a riverside by his loyal steed. Mortensen even seems faintly embarrassed by his abortive romantic flirtations with Jazira and Lady Davenport, much as he was mostly retiring and ashamed of the attentions of Liv Tyler’s ethereal Arwen. In the latter case, it was because his character felt himself unworthy of the Elf-maiden until he fulfilled his destiny and earned Gondor’s throne, but in Hidalgo, he’d simply rather be with his horse.

This portrait of human-equine symbiosis is Mortensen’s truest accomplishment in Hidalgo. Despite his aesthetic success as star and the film’s modestly profitable commercial returns, Mortensen as an old-fashioned movie star with a contemporary bohemian edge never quite took hold. Given a freedom of choice of projects by his convincing Gondorian kingship, Mortensen tended towards independent and international work, most notably becoming David Cronenberg’s key collaborator on a trio of acclaimed films (A History of ViolenceEastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method) and earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in the process. Viggo Mortensen didn’t follow the Hidalgo epic screen hero career path not because he couldn’t hack it, but because he decided not to, because other paths appear to have interested him more. To this, we say: Let her buck.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: