It’s been a while since I last saw a decent non-animated film about a horse and his man, and despite a few soft spots Hidalgo goes a good part of the way toward making up for that wait. It isn’t high drama, and it isn’t all about spectacular stunts and special effects (though it does have a few of both) - it’s a story that reminds me of the books I read as a teenager that caused me, and probably every other teenage girl, to fall in love with horses and dream about the grand adventures to be had in exotic locales so long as you had your very own precocious pony to take you there. It was somewhat refreshing to finally find a film that reminded me of those times without feeling the need to yank unduly hard on my emotional heartstrings or ask me to put my faith in some anemic youth as the totally unbelievable and unappealing hero.
At one level Hidalgo is about a race, a three thousand mile endurance race across Persian deserts that only the purest bred Arabian horses, and riders, had successfully run for more than a thousand years, and a horse, Hidalgo, who is the first non-purebred Arabian to be invited to run. At heart however the story is really about Hidalgo’s rider, Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), who must learn to come to terms with the things he has lived through and the person he truly is in the trial by fire that is this race across the desert and the challenges that cultural intolerance forces upon him. Mixed heritage, both his own and Hidalgo’s, would seem to doom horse and rider to mediocrity at best, a lonely ill-starred life at worst, as Hopkins watches his Native American bretheren rounded up and either massacred or incarcerated, and the wild mustang herds captured and either slaughtered for meat or killed to prevent their use by insurgents. Neither he nor Hidalgo seems to have a place of respect in this world, either in his own land or in the realm of Islam, where he is viewed simply as an infidel and Hidalgo is mocked as an unworthy inferior of the thoroughbreds he faces. The question becomes... do Hopkins and Hidalgo have what it takes to prove otherwise?
As much as I hate to say it, I am not convinced that Viggo Mortensen was completely right for the role of Frank Hopkins. He was certainly wonderful to watch on screen and had had all the right technical talent for a film dealing with horses, but his mumbling portrayal of a man brash enough to cross a couple of oceans and continents to compete in a closed race against the best of the best just doesn’t quite hold sand, err... water. Yes, Hopkins was at a low period in his life, but I believe someone like him would need to have a lot more panache than Mortensen does in order to win as many races as he did, work for Buffalo Bill Cody’s road show, and have the drive to survive the race. Zuleikha Robinson as the sheik’s daughter also did next to nothing for me - the role cries out to either be played stronger or more elegantly, and she was... simply there. As always, Omar Sharif brings class and believability to his role as Sheik Riyadh, the race sponsor, as does Louise Lombard as Lady Ann Davenport. And I must say I absolutely love Yusef the goatherder (Harsh Nayyar), an extremely vociferous pessimist assigned to assist the infidel Hopkins during the race. He delivers just the right measure of humor needed to counterpoint Hopkins’ humble wit. One thing that did startle me at times, and I can’t decide if it is in my head or a deliberate device, is the appearance of several images that struck me as being very similar to elements in other films - Hopkins speaking a Native American dialect, the intro music, and Hopkins wrapping an amulet in his palm all remind me of similar elements in Lord of the Rings, and Hopkins’ descent into alcoholism after witnessing a massacre and performing drunk in a Wild West show is just a little too close to The Last Samurai to be ignored. The score is beautiful, as are the cinematography and production design, but the special effects, the obvious ones at least, are just not quite up to snuff. Not to say that the effects are bad - I actually give the effects group a lot of credit for taking on some of the challenges they did - they are just a little too noticeable as effects sometimes. Finally, given that the film bears his name, I think I was expecting Hidalgo himself to play a more obvious role. There are a few scenes where the horse’s personality shines through, but not nearly enough. More horse, less Viggo, and I think it’d be perfect.
Despite the flaws I enjoyed this film and recommend it to anyone who knows how to just enjoy a good clean old-fashioned adventure story, kids especially. If you have lost your ability to let yourself be swept along with a story, or if you have lost that innocent appreciation of the special relationship possible between horses and man, then this film may disappoint. I for one am grateful for the chance to re-live the kind of simple story-telling that once inspired me so much.
What this disc’s extra features lack in quantity, they make up for in enjoyability. There are only two featurettes - the first is "Sand & Celluloid", a short making-of piece that deals mostly with the sets and locations used in the film. The second, only viewable via a DVD-ROM system, is called "America’s First Horse", a very well-put together collection of informaton about the real Frank Hopkins, who is reported to have been as talented a tale-spinner as horseman, and the Spanish Mustang, a species still endangered today. Interviews with breeders, video clips from present-day endurance races, and a voice-over by Viggo Mortensen reading a letter written by Hopkins combine to provide a very enlightening but also heart-warming look at the mustang that anyone who appreciates horses should find well worth the watch.