“Ready when you are, brother.” When Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) talks to his horse, Hidalgo, the share a special understanding, a brotherhood if you will, that transcends their different backgrounds, experiences, and numbers of legs. The horse, a Spanish mustang Frank captured and trained as a wild colt, is unspeakably wise and patient, glorious and spirited. Above all, he is resilient and loyal. He has suffered the encroachment of humans into the West, and has found the one and only creature he might trust.
Hidalgo is the story of this horse and his man. Like his best friend on earth, Frank is smart, sturdy, and — importantly — mixed, half-white and half-Native. This grants him a perspective that stands him apart from most men. An erstwhile cavalry dispatch rider, he’s haunted by nightmarish flashbacks of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. He didn’t quite witness it, having been sent on a dispatch run by an officer who didn’t realize his deep and mystical connection with his kin, but he came back when some unknowable feeling drew him back, just in time to see the aftermath: bodies everywhere. In these flashbacks, which come together gradually, the camera tends to linger on Frank’s face — hardened, horrified, destroyed.
According to the film’s briefly noted backstory, Frank quit the military (though what he was doing in it to begin with is not explained), and lit out, becoming an endurance rider extraordinaire. If you were so inclined, you might read this occupation as a metaphor for “running away,” the sort of simultaneously pained and exhilarated effort undertaken by a troubled soul, at least in the movies. Still, Frank begins the film at a low point, after this series of victories: he’s drinking, woe-is-meing, and doing tricks for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Though his friend and fellow performer Annie Oakley (Elizabeth Berridge) encourages Frank to keep his chin up, he doesn’t actually make a move until he’s challenged by Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) to an amazing race — over 3,000 miles of Saudi Arabian desert, the “Ocean of Fire.”
As fast as you can say The Last Samurai, Frank is on a ship to the other side of the world, where he will redeem his honor or kill himself (and his horse) trying. Historically, the race has been a test for purebred Arabians, ridden by princes (here including Prince Bin Al Rech [Saïd Taghmaoui, who delivered the brilliant Michael Jackson speech in Three Kings]) — this emphasizes the class distinctions that make Frank and Hidalgo look like worthy underdogs. Hidalgo and his man must prove themselves personally, but also, more significantly, they must prove their all-American potency against these dark-skinned, white-robed others. (During one rest stop, Frank is warned to ensure that his stud doesn’t try to cover an Arabian mare, lest he ruin her.)
This opposition is complicated by the fact of Frank’s (and Hidalgo’s, don’t forget) own “impure” blood, which makes his righteousness cut all ways. He’s mad at white men, Saudi royalty, and any other sort of traditional masculine authority that’s not premised on rugged good looks and true tests of courage. His virtue is a function of his victimhood, and it’s confirmed in his survival. And this is a mighty task, as the race is grueling, not least because Hidalgo takes multiple detours from the central action.
Many of these occur against backgrounds featuring the magnificent beauty and danger of the desert, and some of the stock sorts of shots are breathtaking: 100 horses galloping from the starting line, their muscles straining, their manes flying; Hidalgo and Frank sloughing through the dunes, perfectly framed against a setting sun. Amid the many thrills of the landscape, Frank befriends Riyadh, who admires his nerve, his reputation, and his Colt pistol (this would be the boy bonding episode). And then, the silliness: a completely obviously digital sandstorm rolling up behind Hidalgo and Frank as if they’re racing to escape The Scorpion King, or the inevitable quicksand that sucks up one of Frank’s rival riders, his face grim and sweaty as he suffocates. That Frank stops to help him marks his marginality and so, in this equation, his probity.
The film’s moralizing is familiar, but it’s hardly straightforward. Written by John Fusco, Hidalgo‘s source is Hopkins’ own reportedly “exaggerated” memoirs. (As Hopkins tells it, he was, in addition to being a dispatch rider and long distance racer, also an African explorer, bounty hunter, secret agent, and Pinkerton detective, among other occupations.) Such fictionalization would be fine, at whatever point it steps off its deep end (in Hopkins, at Disney), except that the company is promoting the movie as “based on a true story.” This has raised some bit of a ruckus, as any overt straining between truth and fiction does these days. But this distracts from the movie’s more intriguing mixing of invention and history, as myths of race and class collide and don’t quite recover.
And that’s not even the half of it. Frank also meets two women — Riyadh’s daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), who sneaks into the race disguised as a man, and the manipulative Lady Davenport (Louise Lombard). The former is feisty and curious, the sort of girl that Disney animators have been conjuring for the past few years. In public, her father tells Jazira she’s property, that he wishes she’d been born a boy, but he’s also secretly proud of her. When she’s kidnapped by a relative who’s angry with her father’s tendency to domination, Frank takes time off from the race to find her and bring her back, at which point we learn that, much like many heterosexual females who’ve had a look at Viggo Mortensen astride a horse recently, she’s developed a crush, pushed over the edge into adoration when he reveals to her the pain of his youth.
Lady Davenport, by contrast, is haughty and wicked, presumptuous and cunning. She meets Frank on the ship en route to Arabia, impressed by the fact that he’ll take on a gang of ruffians who are taunting Hidalgo. She makes fun of his “pony,” though, indicating that only a purebred might win this prestigious, insane race (half the riders die, horses collapse). Porcelain-skinned, Lady Davenport will stop at nothing to ensure that her own horse will win, including a tentative effort to arouse Frank’s manhood one dry desert night. She can’t know, of course, that his heart belongs to Hidalgo.