Hidalgo has been out on video and DVD for a week or so, but it's worth comment, if only for its unusual nature. This is an old-time adventure story, but one that is curiously self-aware: one of the characters even comments on the ending. It's also aware of the tradition(s) from which it springs, a mix of the cowboy and "great chase" flicks. As executed by director Joe Johnston and stars Viggo Mortenson and Omar Sharif, with the considerable aid of cinematographer Shelley Johnson, the film has an appeal which should carry across the generation gap.

But the title character - and for some the main appeal - is a horse, the trusted mount and "brother" of endurance rider Frank Hopkins (Mortenson), an actual historical figure who won over 400 long-distance races around the turn of the last century. As presented in the film, Hopkins is himself an ambiguous figure, the son of a cavalry scout and a "chief's daughter," who unknowingly brought the Army orders at Wounded Knee. He is still haunted by memories of the massacre there in 1890, even as he takes part in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which stages a recreation of the event.

Drunk and looking to escape this phony life, he signs up for what he believes will be his last race: The Great Horse Race of the Bedouins, a thousand-year old, 3,000-mile chase across the desert in what are now Iraq and Syria. He is challenged by Sheik Ryath (Sharif) to beat his own carefully-bred Arabian stallion, Al-Hatal. He also, not incidentally, is challenged by Ryath's tomboy daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), and inadvertently gets into some trouble because of her. (Some comedy is generated around the possibility of Hopkins' castration for being caught with the girl.) Much is made of the parallel between the Bedouins and the Native Americans, and some of the film's hokier moments result.

But the movie's primary appeal is visual, the Moroccan desert providing a cinematographer's dream setting of harsh beauty. (A bonus feature on the DVD also reveals some of the nightmare aspects of the shoot.) As "Far Rider" Hopkins and a hundred competitors make their way across the Empty Quarter (a.k.a. The Ocean of Fire), the landscape provides the greatest challenge to men and animals: almost half the entrants never make it to the finish, and a number die, the rules of the race forbidding any rider from helping another.

There's an extraneous subplot involving an unscrupulous Brit, Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard), who wants to gain the breeding rights to Al-Hatal and will use whatever seductions and foul play necessary to get her wish. This and the incipient love interest with Jazira lead to some derring-do, all of which gets in the way of the main action, the race itself.

For this the special effects folks have provided some nice moments, including a computer-generated sandstorm and a swarm of locusts, and there are some cool spectacle scenes involving actual humans, too - a refreshing change. James Newton Howard's score sometimes waxes a mite too nostalgic, too Big Music, and Barry Robison's production design, while appealing, looks like almost every desert flick of the 30s and 40s, eschewing the realistic in favor of the romantic.

Still, Hidalgo has enough going for it to rate a rental, including some really nice work by the "main horse" and five doubles, some of whom had their own makeup artist. John Fusco's screenplay has some fun with the cowboy tradition: the normally laconic and unflappable Hopkins loses it only once, getting some revenge on the chief bad guy while he utters the movie's single best line, "Nobody hurts my horse." It's rated "PG-13" for some violence, and that seems about right, given the number of people who are shot, stabbed, and beheaded. But it's oddly quaint, even restrained, in other ways, and makes for good end-of-summer fare.


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