A Horse of a Different Color
Two words: Veee-go! If there was any doubt — not that there seems to have been — that Viggo Mortensen could pull off this movie-star thing without cute hobbits and magic rings to prop him up, well, check out Hidalgo. This is a spectacular film, as grand as old Hollywood and as fun and as breathtaking and as touching as anything you’ll see at the movies today, and while it’s not all down to Viggo, none of it would have worked without him.
A little bit Lieutenant Dunbar, a little bit Indiana Jones, and a little bit T.E. Lawrence, Mortensen’s (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Psycho) Frank Hopkins is the kind of guy who can take an insult himself, but don’t you dare say anything about his horse. Already a legendary rider in his own time, the 1890s, Hopkins — who was a real guy, by the way — gets himself invited to participate in the Ocean of Fire, a 3000-mile race across one of the most inhospitable deserts in the world, which has been held annually for a thousand years. Seems Hopkins and his scrappy little mutt of a horse, the mustang Hidalgo, have been putting Arabian thoroughbreds of ancient bloodlines to shame with the claim that the cowboy and the painted pony are the fastest team on the planet. Arab honor is at stake. Hopkins picks up the gauntlet.
There’s lots of gorgeous, sun-drenched desert vistas, of course, and billowing white tents and hundreds of stunning and splendid specimens of equine beauty and Omar Sharif (The 13th Warrior, Funny Girl) as a noble sheikh, and you cannot go wrong with any of these things. Like movies about dogs, horse stories are never bad even when they’re bad, and this is a great one. It’s a romance, really, between Hopkins and Hidalgo, and how intense is it? Mortensen actually ended up purchasing T.J., the horse who plays Hidalgo in closeups, the one he actually acted with the most, and usually when leading men are so consumed with a desire to possess their costars, they have to marry them. That passion is all up on the screen — the horse is even a damn good actor, too, or just loves Viggo as much as we all do. They’re even funny together.
It’s not all fun and games, of course. Sure, there’s the movie-licious treachery of the race’s participants and hangers-on — Louise Lombard’s Lady Anne Davenport, an Englishwoman whose thoroughbred is racing, with high stakes, is particularly scrumptious, as is Saïd Taghmaoui’s (The Good Thief, Three Kings) Prince Bin Al Reeh, who’s not happy about being forbidden to race. But the movie opens with the massacre at Wounded Knee, which Hopkins was peripherally involved in, a dreadful and horrifying sequence, and then segues into the travesty of a parody of the destruction of native cultures at Buffalo Bill Cody’s (J.K. Simmons: Spider-Man, The Mexican) Wild West Show, thrilling eastern audiences with staged genocide. Hopkins, a member of the show now, is devastated by it, by everything that’s happening out west, and Mortensen makes it real. The opening twenty minutes of the film are heartbreaking, thanks to Mortensen and Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III, October Sky), with his sensitive, unhistrionic direction, and set a tone for the rest of the film that allows it to transcend mere adventure or escapism. It gets a tad preposterous, perhaps, with Hopkins’s spirit quest thingie out in the Arabian desert — he’s half Indian but has rejected that heritage, though now it calls to him — but it’s all entirely forgivable. The film is just way too engrossing, even when it falls into a bit of absurdity, to be dismissed.
I mean, yeah, this is a movie about men who will face near certain death by crossing thousands of miles of desert to prove a point, but that’s men for you. This Hopkins guy, male silliness aside, seems like an all-right fellow. No horse would love someone who wasn’t.