Friday, July 3, 2015

Hidalgo Review

I frankly don't see a lot of westerns that I am truly enthralled by. They tend to be formulaic and come a dime a dozen. On the occasion that I do find a western that I enjoy, I usually like it a lot. In the case of Hidalgo (2004), I thought it was a really fun story that goes outside of the usual western setting of the western wilds of the United States and into the Middle East. It's far from perfect, but it hits the right notes.
Held yearly for centuries, the Ocean of Fire--a 3,000 mile survival race across the Arabian desert--was a challenge restricted to the finest Arabian horses ever bred, the purest and noblest lines, owned by the greatest royal families. In 1890, wealthy Sheik Riyadh (Omar Sharif) invited an American, Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), and his horse to enter the race for the first time. During the course of his career, Hopkins was a cowboy and dispatch rider for the U.S. cavalry--and had once been billed as the greatest rider the West had ever known. The Sheik puts his claim to the test, pitting the American cowboy and his mustang, Hidalgo, against the world's greatest Arabian horses and Bedouin riders--some of whom are determined to prevent a foreigner from finishing the race. For Frank, the Ocean of Fire becomes not only a matter of pride and honor, but a race for his very survival as he and his horse attempt the impossible.
So, Frank Hopkins himself was a real person who was known as a legendary distance rider, claimed to have won four hundred races, and was recognized by his contemporaries as supporting the preservation of the mustang breed of horse. His life and story were the inspiration for Hidalgo, and Disney marketed the film as "based on a true story," although subsequent investigations have failed to find any evidence of such a race. Hopkins was known for telling exaggerated stories about himself, even claiming that he was born in 1865, which also was never backed up with any proof. History buffs who care about accuracy are probably going to get all bent out of shape many times in this movie. It should be abundantly clear this is a made up story for the sake of telling a fun story.
And what a fun story it is! There's lots of gunplay, horse racing, saving damsels in distress, outrunning a sandstorm, swordplay, political intrigue, clashes of cultures, and outwitting scoundrels. On the one hand, the story is formulaic and does a lot of things that other westerns do. But on the other hand, I think it does a lot of these formulaic elements very well and shows us some good examples of these sorts of elements. I don't want to praise the movie as unique simply for being a western that is mostly set in Middle East, but that is what it is and I can't think of another movie that has done that.
This adds some interesting aspects to the movie; rather than clashing or fighting with Native Americans, we're clashing and fighting with Sheiks and Arabs. That's not a huge change of pace, just a different people and culture. Unlike older westerns which demonize Native Americans, the Middle Easterners here are depicted as honorable people with a rich tradition who happen to have some unscrupulous individuals who violate and make exception to those honorable values and traditions for their own personal gain. So, pretty much like every culture out there. As I have little experience with that part of the world I can't comment on the accuracy of their depiction in this movie, and I hope the historical accuracy is not an indicator if cultural accuracy.
This isn't just a western, it's also a horse movie. Horse enthusiasts will likely be enthralled by the relationship between Hopkins and his horse, Hidalgo. The main horse and Viggo Mortensen actually have a chemistry between them. Mortensen liked and got along with that horse so well that he later bought the horse. There are some great lines in the movie that are perfectly "western" and perfectly "horse movie." The damsel in distress asks Hopkins "Why do I feel that you truly see me when others do not?" to which Hopkins replies, "Well, my horse likes ya." Classic.
Whether or not the events depicted in Hidalgo really happened to Hopkins, it's still a fun story. Please ignore any tiresome scolds who complain that the movie is not really based on fact. I mean, duh. The story is full of some likable characters, plenty of action, a search for identity and honor, and some pretty impressive horses. If there's a downside to any of this, I'm not seeing it. Sure, it's formulaic. Yeah, it doesn't stray far from western movie tropes. But it's a fun movie, and I liked it. I recommend seeing this film if you enjoy westerns or simply love horses. Hidalgo is worth having a copy of if you fall in that demographic. It does get rather violent, so it's not something to watch with younger children present.  I already have a copy of this on my shelves; it's fun to take out and watch every now and again.

What's your favorite "horse movie?" Comment below and let me know!

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