There is much to admire and enjoy about Touchstone Pictures' 2004 release, "Hidalgo," not the least of which is its gorgeous scenery and cinematography and its lead performance by Viggo Mortensen. But there are also reasons why the film failed to recoup its production costs at the box office, reasons like its derivative plot, commonplace characters, and clichéd action. It's not a bad film; but it never catches fire, either.
It was courageous of the Disney studio to go with a Western at all, given the genre's current disfavor with the public, even a transplanted Western set in Arabia. But why are the filmmakers so insistent upon telling us that the story is based on fact? At the beginning of the movie, at the end, and again in the DVD's accompanying featurette, the filmmakers claim that the events of the movie really happened in the life of cowboy Frank T. Hopkins. Could it be that the experiences recounted in the film are so preposterous, the filmmakers felt the need to counter an audience's possible incredulity at every turn? I don't know.
What is clear is that the movie purports to tell of a legendary 3,000-mile horse race across the Arabian desert to Damascus, a race known as the "Ocean of Fire," said to be held annually for a thousand years. In the movie, Hopkins, a real historical character, is working for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where in 1890 he's billed as the greatest endurance rider who ever lived. An Arabian Sheikh challenges Hopkins to enter the race with his horse, Hidalgo, and prove his worth against the best horses and riders in the world. The movie is primarily about Hopkins' adventures during the race.
But did any of it actually happen, as Disney claims? Not according to the University of Wyoming American Heritage Center, whose research reveals that there is no evidence of any such annual horse race to have taken place in Arabia, that Hopkins probably made up most of the stories about himself, that he may have lived his entire life in the Eastern United States, and that he probably wasn't even a very good rider. Hopkins did, after all, work at least for a while with the Buffalo Bill show, one of the biggest frauds of all time in its depiction of Western history. So why should we believe the man? More important, why weren't the Disney folks content simply to tell a good story? Could it have been because they knew they didn't have a very good story?
I found "Hidalgo" to be long and often tedious, despite the best intentions of its photography and star. Mainly, I found the movie too reminiscent of everything else I've ever seen in a Western movie, with only its Arabian setting to offset its redundancies. Of course, the Western-movie genre is expected to follow formula; we all know that. But the best of the breed add something new to the mix that makes them special. "High Noon" and "Shane" added touches of thoughtful, adult psychology. "Open Range" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" added likeable, warmhearted heroes. "Tombstone" added fast-paced eccentricity. "Unforgiven" added humor and cynicism. "Hidalgo" adds bits and pieces from every Hollywood movie you've ever seen, Western or not, without providing anything innovative or inspiring.
To wit: the hero, Hopkins, is a broken-down drunk working for Buffalo Bill's show. Part white and part Native American, he becomes despondent after witnessing firsthand the massacre at Wounded Knee. He questions who he is, why people are so cruel, and what his place is in society. Going to a far-off land and entering an exotic contest is his way of finding some kind of redemption. I mean, does any of this sound to you like "The Last Samurai" (2003) or "Dances With Wolves" (1990) or "Little Big Man" (1970)? Moreover, the idea of a horse race capitalizes on the popularity of the previous year's "Seabiscuit" (2003). The notion of a cross-country horse race was done better in "Bite the Bullet" (1975). Having an American cowboy go to a foreign country to compete against the best of the best is straight out of "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" (1965). The casting of a lovable old ruler, his beautiful daughter, and a treacherous advisor was seen to greater advantage in "The Thief of Bagdad" (1940) and "Aladdin" (1992). Even the setting of "Hidalgo" is reminiscent of something else, notably "Lawrence of Arabia"; and "Hidalgo" goes so far as to cast Omar Sharif as one of its co-stars!
Now, you'd think that a 3,000-mile race across some of the most treacherous (and beautiful) countryside imaginable would be enough to sustain the interest of an audience for at least ninety minutes; but the filmmakers think otherwise, adding an impenetrable layer of melodrama that extends the duration of the movie to well over two hours. The hero, Hopkins (Mortensen), must be strong, virtuous, and honorable at all times. The sponsoring Sheikh, Ridadh (Sharif), must be kindly yet tough. His daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), must be spunky and independent and manage to get herself kidnapped. Guess who stops to effect a daring rescue? No, not Peter O'Toole. The villains, Aziz (Adam Alexi-Malle) and Katib (Silas Carson), must be dastardly and totally without conscience. In the middle of the desert, there must be a perfectly attired, immaculately coiffured, snooty British female aristocrat, Lady Davenport (Louise Lombard). And, unbelievably, there is even a comic sidekick for Hopkins, a goatherd named Yusef (Harsh Nayyar), who's a dead ringer for Gabby Hayes!
Still, a viewer will find much pleasure in the work of cinematographer Shelly Johnson; the location shooting in Morocco, Montana, and South Dakota; a stupendous dust storm created by Industrial Light and Magic that advances like a tidal wave; and the acting of Viggo Mortensen, who adds a note of tired resignation to his role and makes his character, no matter how heroic, both vulnerable and real.
If only those admirable qualities had overcome things like James Newton Howard's sometimes rousing but ultimately forgettable musical score; the often leaden pace of director Joe Johnston ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "Jumanji," "Jurassic Park III"); and the endless tribal wars, internal political bickering, disloyalties, briberies, and every kind of hardship imaginable that plague poor Hopkins during his ordeal.
Is there ever any doubt who's going to win the race? Hardly. And I'm not even going to get into the controversy of American superiority and racial stereotyping the movie caters to. Let me just assure you the film ends on a sweet, sentimental note, which, like the rest of the story, goes on too long.
The movie's best line comes from the patient, taciturn, long-suffering Hopkins: "Nobody hurts my horse." The man is slow to anger, but once he's motivated, he moves with dispatch. I wish the same could have been said of the movie.
The picture has been transferred to disc via THX standards in a widescreen anamorphic ratio measuring approximately 2.17:1 across a normal television. However, it is not transferred at a very high bit rate, so some of the enhanced, anamorphic qualities are negated. The result is a picture quality that is slightly soft and slightly pale, with a touch of grain and a number of instances of shimmering lines. The film's beautiful cinematography is compromised by a good but less-than-ideal mastering. I suspect that BV tried to put too much information on one disc: a long movie, a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, a DTS 5.1 soundtrack, and a few extras. Something had to give, and it was obviously the video playback. Oh, well....
As I said, the sound comes to us via either DD 5.1 or DTS 5.1. In Dolby Digital 5.1 we get lots of rear-channel information--horses' hooves, sand storms, gunshots, locusts, and music. A locomotive passing overhead at the beginning of the film is a bit nonsensical but fun. The sound of the front channels alone is also good, wide spread and realistic. But there isn't as much deep bass as there could be nor as strong a dynamic impact as I've heard. So, here, too, there are minor compromises.
There isn't much in the way of extras, actually. Part of this is undoubtedly because, again, the film is long and accompanied by the two multichannel soundtracks for English (and a pair of two-channel soundtracks for French and Spanish), and there probably wasn't a whole lot of room left over, even with all the compression used.
Anyway, the main bonus feature is a nine-minute item called "Sand & Celluloid," a behind-the-scenes affair that tells how the story is supposedly true and where it was filmed. The second major item is disingenuous. It's a DVD-ROM feature called "America's First Horse," which explains the origins of the American mustang in Spanish ancestry. However, there is no indication on the keep case that this item can only be accessed through a DVD-ROM player in one's computer; I know it came as a surprise to me. So, what if a person bought the disc looking forward to this bonus feature and then didn't have a DVD-ROM player or a computer? Or didn't like the idea of viewing the material on a computer screen? Tough break, I guess. The extras conclude with a mere eighteen scene selections, a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests, and a few Sneak Peeks at other Buena Vista releases. English, French, and Spanish are the spoken languages offered, with French and Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Hidalgo" did respectable business for a Western, taking in over $67,000,000. But the movie cost some $78,000,000 to make, given its huge cast and extensive location shooting, so Disney will have to sell a lot of DVDs and do a lot of TV marketing to show a profit. Besides, I suspect a lot of people bought theater tickets just to see Viggo Mortensen after having been impressed by his work in "The Lord of the Rings."
I didn't find "Hidalgo" particularly stimulating, but for audiences unfamiliar with the banalities and clichés of its script, it can undoubtedly be a rewarding experience. It may be overlong and occasionally boring, but Mortensen holds up his end as an endearingly noble, mythic Western hero; the scenery is spectacular; and the intermittent special effects are impressive. "Hidalgo" may not be the best movie of all time, but it's not a total loss, either.