This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
Frank Hopkins was a legend in his own lifetime, amongst certain circles at least. Dispatch rider for the U.S. Army, he smashed all kinds of distance and speed records on his mustang Hidalgo. Foremost amongst his achievements was his 1890 victory in the Ocean of Fire, an incredibly gruelling feat of endurance taking place over 3000 miles of arid scorched earth. Hidalgo tells the tale with Viggo Mortensen stepping into the spurs of Hopkins, a man now familiar to everyone on the planet as The Lord of the Rings‘ Strider. While some had feared that he might fall into the same stereotype trap that snared Mark Hamill some twenty five odd years ago, his effortlessly believable performance as the laid-back, sardonic Hopkins ought to bury that thought.
Given the phenomenal achievements of the riders concerned it seems a terrible and unjust understatement to reduce the narrative to ‘horses going across a desert’, but in a nutshell that’s the extent of it. Elaboration to this basic plotline are provided by chief of the desert nomads, Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) challenging Hopkins to prove the claims made on Hidalgo’s behalf by Buffalo Bill (J.K. Simmons)’s travelling Wild West Roadshow that he’s the greatest endurance rider the world has ever seen. There’s more than pride on the line in this race though, a thousand silver coins heading into the winner’s pockets.
As the race unfolds Hopkins has to deal with openly hostile competitors, up to the point where they’re kidnapping the Sheikh’s daughter Jazira during the rest period at the half way point of the event. Being a dyed in the wool rootin’ tootin’ cowpoke Hopkins won’t let this aggression stand, recapturing her at the rather forcible behest of the Sheikh and aided by the Sheikh’s most accomplished sword-swinging bodyguard. This gunslinging interlude serves as little more than a slight holiday for Hopkins before embarking on the second and increasingly arduous leg of the race.
Now, the thing about deserts, the gimmick that made them famous, their unique selling point if you will, is that they’re full of sand. Vast quantities of it, to the exclusion of everything else. Complaining about this seems churlish, although it does present some difficulties for cinematographers charged with shooting in said sandy wastes. With only the occasional bunch of tents to break up the landscape, from the air conditioned comfort of a cinema screen it’s rather easy to get a shade complacent and a tad bored of the unending sandyness of the film. While this unavoidably comes with the territory, you might end up wondering why director Joe Johnston has decided to do yet another shot of horses silhouetted against a setting sun, and whether he’s as bored of it as we are.
I’m being tremendously foolish, I know. It’s a film set in a desert. There’s no other feasible way to handle Hidalgo, but by the final reels you might be getting the slight feeling of repetition as thirsty horses and riders stagger over yet another dune. Still, the conclusion of the race with the underdog, wounded mustang taking on two of the purest thoroughbreds the world has seen provides the necessary adrenaline surge so I’m guessing that this is a case of me picking nits in the absence of anything else to criticise.
And there’s certainly a lot to like in Hidalgo. Mortensen proves an amiable cowpoke, replacing the assured stoicism of his more famous role with a more down to earth charm that owes much to a happy-go-lucky John Wayne impersonation. For all the above whining it’s occasionally visually jaw-dropping, and director Joe Johnston does a decent job of keeping everything shuffling along at a fair old pace. Professional support is provided by the ever-dependable Omar Sharif, and even Malcolm McDowell in a brief cameo appearance appears to be trying to act as someone other than Malcolm McDowell, which is a novelty of late. There’s very few in the way of weak performances, although everyone is upstaged to a degree by Hidalgo himself. A definite candidate for theOneliner’s annual awards Best Horse category.
If you are going to pick flaws with Hidalgo, it’s that there’s no real sense of character development or any of the other fripperies that would generally be written into works of fiction. While Hopkins has fallen into pretty much exactly the same circumstances as The Last Samurai‘s Nathan Algren, he soon drags himself back to an even keel as soon as he has something worthwhile to do and as such it’s not Hopkins that changes, he just changes the opinions of the people he meets. As substitutes go it’s not a bad one but there’s not much emotional involvement in their changes of heart.
Perhaps it’s a touch overlong, perhaps it’s a little jarring for the epic endurance race to be interrupted by a half time show of all-action hostage rescuing. Hidalgo isn’t a perfect film, but there’s enough affable professionalism, solid cinematography and gripping horse action (oo-er, missus) to provide a perfectly entertaining movie for your five pounds. Will you remember it as vividly as, say Lawrence of Arabia, it’s frequent comparison on the basis that they’re both set mostly in the desert? Well, no, you won’t. Some people seem to equate this with Hidalgo being a bad film, hence a lukewarm critical reception.
They’re wrong, and Hidalgo is a pretty good film on the simple basis that it’s entertaining. Sometimes there’s an unhealthy focus on films as art forms rather than films as entertainment. When a movie combines the two then they become classics, but just because a movie like Hidalgo is ‘merely’ an enjoyable way to spend a few hours that’s hardly a cause for complaint.