"Hidalgo" stars the magnetically scruffy and unruffled Viggo Mortensen ("The Lord of the Rings") as Frank Hopkins, a famously fast Pony Express rider who became a long-distance legend in 1890 when he and his undersized mustang were the first Westerners to enter the most grueling horse race in the world -- 3,000 parched miles across the Arabian desert.
The film is based on a true story -- well, except for the romance with a sheikh's fiery daughter, the swordfights and shootouts, the kidnapping, and the conspiracies and double-crosses that lead to such things. (Now that's what I call fictionalization!) But if there's a good movie to be made from such archaic adventure clichés, this picture has the right guy behind the wheel: director Joe Johnston.
Having helmed "The Rocketeer," Disney's wonderfully corny revival of 1940s science-fiction superhero-dom, and "October Sky," a vivid, timeless, 1950s-style feel-good biography about a real NASA scientist's rocket-building teens, Johnston has a knack for finding freshness in the most hackneyed of stories. He even breathed new surprises into the third "Jurassic Park" movie. So bring on the quicksand, sandstorms and locusts! After "Hidalgo," I'm starting to think this guy can mold any perfunctory script into a thoroughly fun and satisfying Saturday matinee.
A classic underdog tale if there ever was one, "Hidalgo" follows the troubled but honorable Hopkins (the son of a cavalry scout and a Lakota chief's daughter) half way around the world as he runs away from bad memories of hard drinking and White Guilt in the dying days of the Old West.
He and his smart, hearty, mixed-blood pinto (whose name lends the film its title) are not entirely welcomed by the Arabic traditionalists who have been running their thoroughbreds in the Ocean of Fire race for generations. But a mutual respect grows between Hopkins and the powerful Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), who has a horse in the race and a willful daughter named Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), who aspires to the cowboy's kind of freedom.
"Hidalgo" spends enough time on the punishing miles of desolate riding to give the impression of the desert's deadly vastness and the incredible challenge Hopkins and his steed are up against. But the plot unfolds mostly at earmarked way stations along the parched route, where the sheikh and other horse owners (including an conniving, flirtatious English noblewoman, inexplicably traveling alone in 19th Century Saudi Arabia) wait for their riders -- and where Jazira waits for Hopkins, a fact that gets him in some perilously hot water.
During one of these stops the sheikh's disinherited nephew raids the encampment and kidnaps the girl in the hopes of ransoming her for his uncle's prize Arabian, affording Hopkins the opportunity to mount a daring rescue, and affording Mortensen the chance to do every great trick-riding and shooting stunt in the cowboy lexicon.
With just the right flavor of outdoorsy, rough-and-tumble reverence in his performance to keep the film honest, Mortensen rises to the occasion with aplomb. If this Frank Hopkins weren't a simple, quiet man by disposition, he could give Indiana Jones a run for his adventure-hero money. (Composer James Howard Newton clearly recognized this fact -- parts of his score owe a lot to "Raiders of the Lost Ark.")
But almost as important to the success of "Hidalgo" are two other performances. Sharif successfully tackles the tough task of finding an affable, culturally deferential balance between the sheikh's conservative tribal ways (i.e. the repression of his daughter) and his admirable honor and nobility. And a horse named T.J., who plays the title role for all the personality scenes (other horses double for the racing shots), has some pretty endearing screen presence himself, providing the picture a touch of good humor and instinctual spirit. This is especially true early on when Hopkins is haunted by self-doubt and it's the horse that keeps him going, in one scene handing him his hat as if to say, "Come on, let's go!"
There may be a tad too much of this in "Hidalgo," but Johnston is a director who knows how to cook up tasty cinema with extra cheese, so it's surprisingly easy to forgive such things. The film has other nit-picky hiccups that break its spell or expose its story contrivances. During the rescue scene gunfight and swordfight, for example, sharpshooter Hopkins takes out several bad guys with ease, but manages only to wound the evil nephew in his hand, for no other reason than that screenwriter John Fusco ("Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron") wants to save his death for just before the bareback-riding, down-to-the-wire, only-in-the-movies climax.
(Other brief beefs: Hopkins' statement that there "ain't no prize money worth a man's life" -- after 14 have already died in the race, and the unrealistic number of times Jazira blatantly breaches her culture's strict edicts about feminine behavior without consequence.)
But throughout the picture, Johnston exercises his hard-to-define gift for defusing contrivance and cliché and finding this old-fashioned movie's authenticity of spirit. "Hidalgo" could have been a real eye-roller in the hands of a director of less sincerity and dexterity, but in Johnston's hands it's crowd-pleasing gold.