directed by Joe Johnson
(Touchstone, 2004)

Admittedly my friend and I bought tickets to Hidalgo hoping to see the king, Aragorn, recreated as a shirtless cowboy. Viggo Mortensen regrettably remained fully clothed throughout the entire 3,000-mile trek across the Arabian desert, but he did much to diversify himself from his royal Lord of the Rings persona.

In Hidalgo, Mortensen portrays Frank Hopkins, a Pony Express rider and endurance race champion, who speaks in a folksy drawl and only comes to fisticuffs to defend his horse. He is half Native American but denies that part of his heritage, so having carried the orders that result in the Wounded Knee massacre creates substantial inner turmoil -- and a drunken stupor. Attempting to drown the haunting images of that day, he's a less than reliable performer in Buffalo Bill's exploitative Wild West Show where his horse, Hidalgo, is billed as the greatest endurance horse of his time and covers for his rider with clever tricks. It's at one of these performances that Hidalgo's title is challenged by a Bedouin sheikh, and Hopkins accepts an invitation to race in the "Ocean of Fire," a long, dusty plod across 3,000 miles of dangerous territory.

The race is, of course, the main focus of the movie, but thousands of miles of thirsty horses and riders can get a bit tedious despite the spectacular scenery and a very cool sandstorm effect. For distractions, the sheikh's disowned nephew is intent on purloining the family's purebred stallion El Attal. The English noblewoman Lady Anne hopes to win breeding rights to the stallion and will do whatever it takes to make sure her mare crosses the finish line first, including treachery and seduction of "the cowboy." The prince riding El Attal wins the opportunity to claim the sheikh's daughter to his harem if he triumphs in the race. Princess Jazira is willing to risk her reputation to help Hopkins and evade this marriage. There's also a welcomed daylong break in the race during which Hopkins and Hidalgo ride into town to rescue the kidnapped princess in a shoot-em-up that is fairly entertaining though considerably far-fetched in its development.

Mortensen plays Hopkins with an understated delivery that is thoughtful but not always exciting. Omar Sharif as the sheikh looks right at home back on Lawrence of Arabia turf. Louise Lombard as the seductive Lady Anne and Zuleika Robinson as the exotic rebellious Jazira are underdeveloped as love interests. Their best moment emerges by jealously sizing up each other's qualities as Hopkins approaches the finish line. So much communication in a glance. Silas Carson is a serviceable villain, but he looks like he knows his destiny from early in the film. The horse, T.J., portraying Hidalgo in the closeups, has the most expressive eyes and tends to steal any scene he's in.

Director Joe Johnson created a beautiful movie. Scenes in both Morocco and North Dakota showcase gorgeous scenery, which is good since the movie often slows down to enjoy the view. Allowing Native American and Bedouin characters to speak in their own languages with English subtitles adds to the multicultural feel, but also seems to slow the pace even more.

The sweet story of a man finding his identity by bonding with his horse is predictable in a Disney tradition. Hidalgo is a good story wrapped in lovely scenery, but it's not a spectacular follow-up for Mortensen.

- Rambles
written by Julie Bowerman
published 20 March 2004

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