Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

‘Hidalgo’: The Little Horse That Could

By JANE WILSON, Special Contributor | Published March 11, 2004

A mixture of old-fashioned cowboy story and Arabian Nights tale, “Hidalgo,” the new movie directed by Joe Johnston from Touchstone Pictures, is an interesting, but not overly compelling, tale of a cowboy facing his demons during a long-distance horse race.

Set in 1890, “Hidalgo” is the real-life story of Frank T. Hopkins, an army courier who, teamed with his horse Hidalgo, is known as the best long-distance rider in the American West. After carrying the orders that lead to the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee, Hopkins takes a job in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show where he spends more time drunk than sober.

A visiting Arabian dignitary complains to Buffalo Bill about Hopkins being billed as the “greatest distance rider in the world” when he has not competed in the Ocean of Fire, a legendary 3,000-mile race through the desert surrounding the Persian Gulf. Reigning Sheikh Riyadh is not pleased by the American’s claim and has sent his emissary with an invitation to participate in the race. Funded by their fellow performers from the Wild West show, Hopkins and Hidalgo set out to prove themselves in a race on the other side of the world.

Hopkins takes the challenge on the advice of an American Indian chief who is working in Buffalo Bill’s show to help his tribe. The cowboy’s not-too-hidden secret is that his ancestry is mixed: His father was a United States soldier, and his mother was a Sioux. When he ignores a woman at Wounded Knee who calls him by his Sioux name and claims to have known his mother, it is clear that he has rejected that part of his heritage. Of course, his inner demons go to work after the massacre, and he feels responsible for the slaughter. Although he does not articulate it and may not even realize it, the race is as much a chance to save himself as it is to win a fortune.

The other part of the challenge is to prove the worth of the horse. Once they arrive in the desert, Hopkins is continually called an “infidel,” but the real interloper is Hidalgo, a mixed-blood mustang in a field of thoroughbred Arabian horses whose bloodlines could be traced back for centuries. Although Hopkins cares little for his own heritage or self-worth, he allows no one to question the value of his horse. He faces the disdain and treachery of his fellow riders with humor but is willing to come to blows for the honor of the mustang. Hidalgo, whose name is the Spanish word for nobleman, lives up to his billing, showing courage and heart even when his rider’s resolve wavers.

Although the subject matter is interesting, the story moves slowly. It takes much too long for the race to get underway, and then, when it does, it is interrupted by an episode of intrigue involving the Sheikh’s less-than-reputable kinsman, the Sheikh’s daughter, and various race participants. The film is at its best during the race sequences and when it shows the hardships faced by the participants. Better editing could have helped to pick up the pace of the background stories.

Apart from an over-reliance on cowboy-and-horse-silhouetted-against-the-sun shots, the cinematography is well done, especially in the desert sequences. A scene in which Hidalgo and Hopkins must outrace a sandstorm is particularly spectacular.

The actors’ performances all serve the movie well. After a series of intense roles, Viggo Mortensen gets a chance to relax a bit and even crack a few jokes as Frank Hopkins. He plays Hopkins as an old-fashioned cowboy, for whom every woman is a “ma’am” and every man is a “partner.” Mortensen, however, is also up to the film’s more serious moments, and he makes the cowboy’s inner turmoil believable.

Omar Sharif is wonderful as Sheikh Riyadh, a stern and mysterious autocrat on the surface but a “wild west” buff with a soft spot for his daughter underneath. Malcolm McDowell is a welcome sight as a wealthy Englishman who meets Hopkins on the ship from America, but his character is left behind all too quickly.

In the requisite romantic female roles, Louise Lombard and Zuleikha Robinson do fine jobs as the horse breeder with questionable motives and the sheikh’s rebellious daughter, Jazira, respectively. Both characters are spirited women who show as much independence as possible in a man’s world.

The real star of the movie, however, is TJ the horse as Hidalgo. The horse demonstrates a winning personality that comes to the forefront especially in his relationship, friendship even, with Hopkins. A fine intelligence and determination is apparent in his eyes, and these qualities make it easy to root for the little horse to win the big race.

Being true to yourself and respecting your heritage are important themes illustrated during the course of the film. At one pivotal point in the race, all of the riders and the horses have reached the point of utter exhaustion and dehydration. The desert is full of mirages, and it is hard to tell which way to go and what is truly in front of them. Hopkins and Hidalgo notice that their fellow riders have stopped to pray to Allah. Lacking any kind of faith, Hopkins presses on until he and his horse are utterly spent. At this lowest point, the spirits of his Sioux forefathers appear to Hopkins, and he appeals to them for help. This is his version of the ghost dance ritual he saw the Sioux performing at the beginning of the story. In looking to a power beyond himself, Hopkins gains the strength to continue. By the end of the film, Hopkins is secure enough to celebrate his mixed heritage.

The strength he derives from faith and self-confidence allows Hopkins to meet his challenges with dignity—a lesson Hidalgo could have taught him from the very beginning.