A man and his horse.
There once was a time when that was all you needed for a rousing story. With "Hidalgo," Touchstone whisks us back to that era when cowboys were synonymous with adventure and romance--not necessarily the female kind, but certainly the whiz-bang dime-novel variety. And when you put that cowboy smack-dab in the middle of the Arabian desert in 1890-91, you also get the kind of exotic culture-clash that made Indiana Jones such a fun ride.
That's what "Hidalgo" is: a straightforward, fictionalized horse-race story that's all the more compelling because we're told it's based on the real life of Frank T. Hopkins, who claimed to have won some 400 long-distance races with his painted mustang, Hidalgo. One of those races was the Great Horse Race of the Bedouin, which we're told had been held for the last 1000 years. Hopkins was "the infidel," invited to participate because one of the sheik's party had heard that he was billing his horse, a fellow performer in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, as the greatest long-distance horse in the world. Prove it, he was basically told. And so he went up against 100 purebred Arabian horses and their riders in a 3000-mile race that, win or lose, would feed his legend.
If, that is, you believe it.
This film has caused a bit of an uproar over whether Frank T. Hopkins was an endurance racer or an endearing teller of tall tales. And Disney has come under fire for promoting this as being "based on a true story." So am I the only person who, all these years, has taken every Hollywood biopic with a grain of salt? From the early black-and-white films like "Stars and Stripes Forever" to the more recent "Ray," I've always known that when it came to screenplays, Hollywood tweaked everyone's life to make it fit the dramatic arc. Characters were routinely dropped or added, emotional through-lines were strengthened, and the truth was stretched, all to tell a good story. I mean, hasn't this occurred to anyone else?
The latest outrage over factuality hints that what we're probably moving toward is a rating system for "truth," where pretty soon you're going to see a distinction between "based on," "inspired by," and "embellished" stories. But does it matter? Davy Crockett exaggerated his exploits as well, and when Disney stretched the truth even farther in their TV series, it was like a retelling of a tall tale. So is this, and it's a dandy. Kidnapped Arabian princesses, a competitor who has his own falcon, bandits, ambushes, traps, sword fights, and a competition between a Spanish mustang and Al-Hattal, the best Arabian horse EVER? Relax, people. Just accept this as the adventure movie it is, and enjoy the ride.
We're told that it was an endurance ride from Galveston, Texas to Rutland, Vermont that started Hopkins on his infamous trail, and that's when we pick up the story in this film by Joe Johnston ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "Jurassic Park III"). Viggo Mortenson plays it just right as the confident but stoic Hopkins, who wagers his Colt .45 on a side bet with dime-novel fan and closet cowboy-lover (no, no, not the "Brokeback Mountain" kind) Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), who puts up $10,000. Sandstorms, locusts, quicksand, a colonial femme fatale (Louise Lombard), and the Sheikh's brigand of a nephew (who sets deadly traps and tries to kill the cowboy and his horse) all stand between Hopkins and the finish line. It's not just man and horse galloping along. The plot is full of as many pitfalls as one of the old-time serials, but Mortenson and his horse (five were actually used for Hidalgo) are likable enough to shoulder the load. The rest of the cast does a credible job, as well. It's not supposed to be comic, but anyone whose enjoyed J.K. Simmons antics in "Spider-Man" will get a kick out of seeing him play the hard-drinking Buffalo Bill Cody.
Johnston made the right call to film this in Morocco, and cinematographer Shelly Johnson--who handled the camerawork for Johnston in "Jurassic Park III"-uses a lot of stationary camera and wide-angle shots to make the most of all those incredible sandy vistas. As for special effects, I doubt that anyone can tell that the locust Hopkins eats was really a blend of sugar, paper, and onion skins--though the plague itself, up close, looks a little off. The rest of the FX look decent, though--especially the sandstorm.
I haven't read Hopkins' memoir, so I can't tell you if the side plot about his mixed ethnicity (Indian name, Blue Child) and his witness to the Wounded Knee Creek Massacre on December 29, 1890 is true or not. I suspect that, like his encounter with the sheikh's kindred-spirit daughter (Zuleikha Robinson), they're fabricated, because it's a little too facile to have the star of this yarn also tell you how and why that massacre happened--over a shot that was accidentally fired when a deaf Indian couldn't understand a soldier's order to hand over his weapon. It seemed to me a case of trying to justify a massacre by U.S. Cavalry when no justification is needed. It's no secret that the U.S. Government committed atrocities against indigenous tribes. Wounded Knee was only one example. If you're going to complain about stretching the truth, this whitewash is the place to do it--not the exploits of a man who may or may not have been a part of the Buffalo Bill's famed Congress of Rough Riders.
But you know what? When it comes right down to it, the only thing that needs to be credible is the movie itself, and aside from a few miraculous incidents (including a trap with sharpened spears inside it), "Hidalgo" held me and the rest of my family in rapt attention. Be warned, though, that the PG-13 rating is for violence that includes a few decapitations, so parents will want to shield the eyes of young ones during some of those battle sequences. There are some subtitles for the Arabic (though most of the nomadic people in Arabia and Iraq somehow have learned how to speak English), so smaller ones will also need to have parents do a little reading for them.
"Hidalgo" was transferred to a 50GB disc using AVC/MPEG-4 technology. I was pleasantly surprised by the 1080p picture. With all the desert conditions I expected some serious grain, but there's only a light dusting. Even the scenes intended to show the heat waves are clear despite the distortion. The palette of this film is earthy, and so it's inappropriate to talk about color saturation except to say that the colors look natural. Black levels seem lower than usual, but this too seems to be the result of desert conditions, and the detail--particularly edge detail and detail in shadow situations--is still very good. "Hidalgo" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
The English PCM 5.1 uncompressed (48kHz/24-bit) audio really booms, especially during high-intensity sequences . . . which is like most of the time. There's a nice distribution of sounds across the effects speakers to approximate the rolling progress of a sandstorm, for example--some of the best audio moments. Other times it's the music that dominates, stirring us as this marathon continues. But the dialogue never gets lost, and when quieter scenes surface there's as much clarity of sound as when things begin to rock. It's a dynamic soundtrack. Additional options are English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, which don't have quite the same fullness or vigor of the PCM. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
The only two bonus features are two pre-release specials that aired on television: "Sand & Celluloid" (which, if memory serves, aired as "On the Set: Hidalgo") and "America's First Horse: Hidalgo and the Spanish Mustang." Both extras are actually pretty good, though the latter is almost as romanticized as the film. But there are no Blu-ray exclusives, either, and no commentary track.
Aside from a few graphic battle moments, "Hidalgo" is a fantastic family film that's high adventure--two popcorn bowls full. It's in the same spirit as the Indiana Jones films, with more action besides horse racing than I could have imagined. At 136 minutes, it still held the kids' attention. And who cares whether it's a tall tale or a real story? For me and my family, "Hidalgo" made for a rousing night at the family cinema.