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by Mark Sells

Hidalgo is an action-adventure movie based on the controversial legend of Frank T. Hopkins. Written by John Fusco, whose previous works include Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Young Guns, and Thunderheart, the movie tells the tale of the world's greatest long distance rider and his faithful Mustang steed, Hidalgo. Hopkins became legendary by competing in over 400 cross-country races and winning every single one. But the picture, directed by Joe Johnston (October Sky) concentrates exclusively on his final race -- the Ocean of Fire, an endurance run across three thousand miles of Arabian desert .

Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) is a washed up cowboy, a drunk, and a bit of a loner. With over four hundred endurance races to his name, Hopkins was once considered the greatest rider the West had ever known. But now, both Hopkins and his horse have become more or less antiques, a sideshow in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. And in the interim, Hopkins' mixed past (his mother was the daughter of an Indian Chief) continues to haunt him. One day, he is approached by a representative of Sheikh Riyadh. It would appear that the Middle East has finally caught wind of Hopkins' accomplishments, and Riyadh (Omar Sharif) wishes to test Hidalgo and Hopkins in a race of the fittest. The race, known as the Ocean of Fire, takes place annually across thousands of miles of Arabian desert . And it pits against one another the finest Arabian horses ever bred, of royal and noble lines.

With pride at stake as well as a $10,000 purse, Hopkins and Hidalgo enter the race, becoming the first American and first horse outside of the Arabian line allowed to compete in it. Along the way, they encounter many friends and foes: the wealthy Lady Anne (Louise Lombard) and her husband Major Davenport, Riyadh's daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), and the penitent goat herder Yusif. Of course, the journey is a long one, filled with unpredictable dangers: sandstorms, locusts, and a slew of enemies intent on sabotage. It turns quickly from a prized race into a race for survival, in which only those with a courageous heart will prevail.

Okay, so Hidalgo isn't really a true story. In fact, very little of it may be true. What we do know is that there was a man by the name of Frank T. Hopkins, who lived from 1865 to 1951. And he wrote a series of memoirs with his wife Gertrude in the 30s and 40s, claiming to have competed in hundreds of long distance races, claiming to have been well acquainted with Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, and claiming to have beaten the best Arabian horses in the so-called Ocean of Fire with his loyal steed, Hidalgo. But the problem is, none of his claims can be proven. Although Fusco has defended his fact-finding research, many noted historians have demonstrated the fanciful nature of Hopkins' claims, and the Ocean of Fire as well.

For me, the historical details were irrelevant to my experience. After all, this is a movie that shows a man outrunning sandstorms on horseback; English-speaking Arabs; cheetahs, quicksand, and other pitfalls; and tropical oases and complexes in the middle of a desert containing nothing but villains and thieves. If the film's purpose was to be considered a factual account, it would have been much more serious and much more tame. Even though Disney fumbled the ball in marketing the picture, you can't fault the filmmakers for wanting to make their own "Seabiscuit meets Lawrence of Arabia."

The movie does show that Mortensen, hot off the success of The Lord of the Rings, can carry a picture on his own. His swagger and earthy good looks serve him well. The film itself is a throwback, an entertaining western adventure that radiates simplicity. Here, relationships are straightforward and curt, honor is a noble virtue, and romanticism is alive and well. The depiction of this is what makes the film appealing, exuding a certain naturalness and feeling of purity.

Yet, for all its simplicity, I still felt the film tried to do too much. Having dueling romantic interests and a group of treacherous thieves to make a mess of things seemed like overkill. I wish the film had stayed true to Hopkins ' straightforward declaration: I'm not here to insult anybody sir. I'm just here to race. Still, Hidalgo is an engaging tale of friendship, courage, and perseverance. For this type of old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment, I was glad to saddle up, kick back, and enjoy the ride.

©2004 Mark Sells