Dir: Joe Johnston. US. 2003. 135mins.
After getting bumped last year from Disney's fall slate, reportedly due to an overabundance of horse movies, the family-targeted action-adventure Western Hidalgo, starring Viggo Mortensen in his first post-Aragorn turn, arrives amid press reports questioning the authenticity of the film's real-life protagonist, one-time cowboy and long-distance rider Frank T Hopkins, and the horse race across the Arabian peninsula that drives its plot.
While Hidalgo's intended audience is unlikely to question Disney's 'based on a true story' claim, expect modest to disappointing returns for this handsomely mounted but wooden and borderline jingoistic epic that suffers from the same stereotypical depiction of Arabs that caused a furore upon Disney's release of its animated Aladdin. A final scene of liberated horses roaming the plains might give pause to more thoughtful viewers, considering the villains triumphed over by the protagonist in the film's predominantly Middle Eastern setting.
Described in the production notes as 'one man's journey of personal redemption,' Hidalgo is the story of Hopkins, (Mortensen), a long-distance endurance rider and Pony Express dispatcher who witnesses the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890 and drowns his sorrows as a performer in Buffalo Bill's travelling Wild West show, galloping his mixed-race steed Hidalgo to national glory.
News of Hopkins' riding ability reaches the Arab Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif, distantly echoing his career-defining performance in Lawrence Of Arabia), who invites the cowboy and his mustang to participate in the Ocean of Fire, a legendary 3,000-mile survival race across the Arabian Desert. Hopkins rises to the challenge as the first American participant in the gruelling contest but discovers myriad obstacles in his path to Damascus, including a scheming Christian missionary (Louise Davenport), the sheik's oppressed teenage daughter (Zuleikha Robinson) and a gaggle of Arab competitors whose thug-like antics, menacing goatees and stereotypical demeanour often leave Hidalgo feeling like a live-action cartoon with unintentionally propagandist overtones.
Mortensen delivers a leaden performance that feels worlds away from the rousing heroics he displayed as the warrior Aragorn in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Forced to utter insipid dialogue ('I'm getting' the hell out of Cleveland!,' Hopkins snaps at Annie Oakley early in the film; 'Good, because we're in Boston!' Oakley shoots back) and act out embarrassing exchanges with his Mustang co-star, who's given saucer-eyed reaction shots that are often painful to behold, it remains to be seen whether Mortensen has the ability to carry an entire film on his own.
Director Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, Jurassic Park 3) struggles to beef up a script by John Fusco (Young Guns, Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron), riddled with pacing problems, tepid dialogue and one-dimensional villains, with enough special effects - enhanced sandstorms and grasshopper swarms - to give The Mummy franchise a run for its money.
The result is a seriously conflicted work that's too violent and overlong for its intended family audience and too derivative to compare with its action-adventure progenitor, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, to which Johnston contributed visual effects. The film also bears the unfortunate distinction of opening opposite Starsky & Hutch in North America, another PG-13 release that will surely consume a large part of Hidalgo's youthful, predominantly male audience.
The factual accuracy of Hopkins' Wild West renown, not to mention the Ocean of Fire's existence as an actual historical event, have been widely questioned in such varied outlets as the Los Angeles Times, The Sunday Times of London and Outside Magazine, adding more red flags to a production seemingly fraught with them.
Shot in October 2002, well after Mortensen had been established as a screen hero and mere months before the US invasion of Iraq, it's obvious Disney had far more concerns with its release than the threat of Seabiscuit outpacing Hidalgo at the multiplex. The sight of matinee idol Mortensen slaying Muslim baddies and saving veiled damsels on foreign soil lends the 'based on a true story' proclamation an uncomfortable resonance to say the least. Will moviegoers ultimately turn away from Hidalgo because there's already a cowboy conquering the Arabian Peninsula'
Prod co: Touchstone Pictures
US dist: Buena Vista Pictures
Int'l dist: BVI
Exec prod: Don Zepfel
Prod: Casey Silver
Scr: John Fusco
Cine: Shelly Johnson
Prod des: Barry Robison
Ed: Robert Dalva
Music: James Newton Howard
Main cast: Viggo Mortensen, Zuleikha Robinson, Omar Sharif, Louise Lombard, Said Taghmaoui, J.K. Simmons