Since we live in a world where people think Forrest Gump is a real person and that the events depicted in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre actually happened, it’s probably best to set to rights the incredible fiction that the folks at Disney are trying to pass off as fact in Hidalgo.
Oh, yes, there really was a Frank T. Hopkins — and it would seem that Mr. Hopkins had a tendency to embroider the truth where his own life was concerned. Indeed, there’s enough embellished stitching here to create a Crimean War general’s uniform. A little research into this “history-based” adventure turns up that there is no record of a Frank T. Hopkins as a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and that he was also never a Pony Express rider. Too, there was never a Hidalgo, nor a race such as the one depicted in the film.
The story on the big screen is nothing more, it seems, than a big, fat lie; it’s Hopkins’ self-created myth being palmed off as truth. And while it doesn’t hurt the movie as such, it’s still somehow troubling — mostly owing to the series of “informative” titles with which director Joe Johnston and screenwriter John Fusco have chosen to festoon the end of their film. And Hidalgo is, credit-wise, their project, bearing the unique title (the Coen brothers to one side) “A Joe Johnston/John Fusco Film.”)
Giving the otherwise-engaging story this kind of bogus historical authenticity sours the experience of the movie somewhat. But, hey, this film is a variant on the Western — and as John Ford so eloquently put it in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.” All in all, I’m inclined to go with that approach where Hidalgo is concerned, because it’s not only a generally entertaining movie, but also a sometimes-fascinating one.
Several critics have noted that this is the kind of movie you just don’t often see anymore — and that’s true, but not just because it’s an old-style-adventure saga. Hidalgo references a certain filmmaking style (in its moments of symbolic fantasy) that was once not uncommon in ’60s and ’70s British cinema (Karel Reisz, Michael Winner and Ken Russell all did it), but is now almost unheard of in mainstream movies. For instance, the brief dream sequence in which Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) envisions — as a very theatrical part of his Wild West Show — Buffalo Bill Cody slaughtering the Indians at Wounded Knee is just not something you expect to see in a 2004 film. And it adds a certain individualistic feel to Hidalgo.
The early sections of the film — which are almost interchangeable with those in the recent Last Samurai — even have some of the feel of Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. And while this certainly imparts to the film a sense of individuality — or at least a sense of unusual pedigree — it also creates a problem: Because this type of material is used as little more than occasional window dressing, it ultimately promises a more interesting movie than the popcorn adventure saga that’s ultimately delivered. It also doesn’t help that Hidalgo is a good 10 to 20 minutes too long. However, as an elaborate, opulent adventure saga, the movie scores pretty well — when it’s on its game, which is most of the time.
Fresh from his success in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Viggo Mortensen makes an appealing Frank Hopkins, playing the role with a nice sense of self-deprecating humor that takes some of the mickey out of the film’s “true story” horse droppings. There’s even a suggestion that Messrs. Fusco and Johnston accept the whole narrative as nothing more than a tall tale. In one amusing sequence where Hopkins tries to stave off impending castration — as punishment for a presumed dalliance with the daughter (Zuleikha Robinson, Slash) of Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) — he resorts to a kind of Wild West Scherezade gambit, placing himself squarely at the center of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, knowing that his audience is a dyed-in-the-wool aficionado of Western history and myth. It’s that kind pleasant, wink-wink attitude that makes Mortensen’s performance work — and that likewise keeps the film afloat.
Taking quite the opposite approach is the legendary Omar Sharif, who makes the movie’s “sheikh of sheikhs” into a figure of genuine dignity and power. What’s remarkable is how well the two styles complement each other — Mortensen keeping things from getting altogether too heavy, and Sharif keeping the entire affair grounded in a kind of respectable seriousness. Even while a number of other things about the movie don’t work — the ending goes on way too long; a subplot involving the duplicity of horse-owner Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard, Claim) is maddeningly unresolved; a cute, Spielbergian little boy is unnecessarily interjected into the film– the pairing of Mortensen and Sharif certainly does. Along with the undeniable craftsmanship of the filmmaking, these two make the movie well worth a visit.
However, one word of warning is in order for Malcolm McDowell watchers: There’s not much more of his cameo performance in the film than you’ve already seen in the trailer.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke