Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Hidalgo (2004) ** 1/2

Directed by Joe Johnson. Written by John Fusco. Produced by Casey Silver. A Buena Vista (Disney) release. 142 minutes. PG-13. Cast: Vigg Mortensen,Omar Sharif, Zuleika Robinon, Adam Alex-Malle, Louise Lombard, Said Taghmaoui, Adoni Maropis, et al.

In Spanish, “Hidalgo” denotes a member of minor nobility or else a person of importance. The word would be a nice title for an action movie about an Errol Flynn type of swashbuckler, or Zorro-like exploits. But in the current film Hidalgo is the name of a mustang, the apple of the eye of Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen.)

Hopkins is presented as a super-champion of long-distance racing (and a great Pony Express messenger) who is half-Caucasian, half-Sioux. In the opening footage, in 1890 he witnesses the Wounded Knee massacre, becomes so despondent that he quits whatever he was doing, hits the bottle, and eventually joins Bill Cody’s (Buffalo Bill’s) Western show.

Cody claims that Hopkins is the world’s best of his kind, but a continent away, those declarations did not sit well with Arabs who are involved in the traditional, three thousand miles “Ocean of Fire” race. Race (in the racial sense) is a factor in this as exclusively Arab riders participate in this grueling contest.

A major horse-breeder is played by Omar Sharif, as chic sheik Riadh. (The name of today’s Saudi Arabian capital.) He dispatches to America a delegate (who struck me as unconvincingly Arabian) to invite Hopkins to the Big Race, as the first-ever non-Arab (Infidel?) participant.

I’ll skip details and move on to Hopkins in Araby, a catch-all term since the movie gives no clues as to geography or topography. The exotic filming locations were in Morocco, plus fake “Arabian” sets in the U.S.A. The race supposedly takes you from land X to, I seem to recall, the Arabian Peninsula, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria.

The pre-race sections are a salad of characters and happenings. Sheik Omar Sharif has a fascination for dime-novels of the American Far West; his comely and proto-feminist daughter Zuleika who wants to be in the race now that all her brothers are dead; some high-class villains who abduct her; an aristocratic British lady who has a horse in competition and attempts (vainly) to seduce Hopkins so as to make him an accomplice in cheating and winning; and more along those lines. The action includes our hero’s rescue of Zuleika , in a sequence which is pure Indiana Jones fantasy. And of course, the smallish mustang will win over the tall thoroughbred steeds.

All this, plus the race proper, rates an F for coherence but better grades for cinematography and special effects (computer-generated) --from an attack hawk, to riders who sabotage our hero, to a colossal sand-storm which might remind you of Hollywood’s Moses parting the waters. The characters, save Sharif, are sketchy. Viggo Mortensen, far too cool and expressionless, makes you yearn for the humor of Harrison Ford and of the various 007s. His two servants, a déjà vu boy and an oldster, are partly meant to underline “how nice the American is!”

So far, so Hollywood--but there’s a gigantic rub. The film is presented as “based on a true story” when the reality is that from A to Z it was a fabrication by Frank Hopkins. He was a Philadelphia construction worker who liked to tell stories and to be the hero of those tall tales. He wrote some "diaries" that may have been his fondest daydreams, but in spite of what Disney seems to want us to believe, putting something on paper doesn't make it true.

Hopkins’s life was a fake epic of self-cultivation. Everything he ever said about himself was an invention, from his birthplace (Laramie, WY) to all the “facts” and “events” of his imaginary existence. He belongs to the group of major hoaxers : the inventors of the Piltdown Man; Van Meegeren and his fake Vermeers; the fake Hitler Diaries in the 1980s; Elmyr de Hory’s fakes of art works, mostly French Impressionists; Hory’s biographer Clifford Irving and his fake autobiography of Howard Hughes….the list is long.

My daughter Dr. Jessica Jahiel--a specialist in matters of horses and horsemanship, author of several books and online information and advice-- mailed me a huge number of references in which Hopkins is totally debunked. Objections are streaming in, including some from Arabic media. Every detail of the Hopkins story and of the movie “Hidalgo” is untrue, and the Great Race never existed. Do check out -- it is great reading!

The authenticity of the characters is about the level of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby great flick “The Road to Morocco” (1942) minus the fun. (Note too how well so many locals speak English!) But there’s an un-comical, disturbing side to this production. If Mel Gibson’s film about Jesus is derogatory to Jews, in smaller ways “Hidalgo” is not flattering to those other Semites, the Arabs.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel