|Written by Paul Lingas|
|Tuesday, 03 August 2004|
Coming off his success as Aragorn in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Viggo Mortensen tackles his first major solo studio outing with the fact-based “Hidalgo” from director Joe Johnston. Based on the stories of famed 19th-century endurance horse racer Frank T. Hopkins (there is some question as to the truth of the tales), the film is a rousing if not completely effective family adventure.
At the outset, Hopkins (Mortensen) is shown winning one of many endurance races with his trusty mustang, Hidalgo, and then is immediately called away to carry a dispatch to the U.S. Army encamped at Wounded Knee Creek. Unknowingly, he carries the orders to finalize the removal of the Sioux, and as he rides away, he and Hidalgo are dismayed to hear the shots that marked the infamous Massacre at Wounded Knee. Hopkins sinks into a drunken haze, travelling as part of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, struggling to come to terms with his role in the Wounded Knee tragedy. We learn that he is part Sioux himself, though it is a part of him that he has tried to hide, since it is obviously not a good thing at the time to be identified as belonging to any Native American tribe.
On a particularly rough night at the show, two emissaries from Sheikh Riyadh attend and inform Cody and Hopkins that the Sheikh is offended that Hidalgo is called “the greatest long distance horse in the world.” They propose that to settle the matter, Hopkins and Hidalgo should enter the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000-mile endurance race across a desert in the Middle East. There Hidalgo would go up against the best, purest-bred horses in the world in what is reputedly the most difficult endurance race on Earth, allowing the truth of the claim to be proven one way or another. Hopkins accepts and the two begin their journey to Iran.
On the way there, Hopkins meets Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard) who is owner of one of the finest horses in the race. She takes an immediate liking to Hopkins, but there is something unsavory about her. After arriving at the starting camp in the desert, Hopkins meets Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), who takes to him as an intriguing outsider. Hopkins is paired up with an assistant who lost a bet with the other Bedouin and who, along with everyone else, calls Hopkins an infidel and doubts his ability to complete even the first stage of the race. Needless to say, Hopkins and Hidalgo complete the first and many other stages of the race. Meanwhile, Lady Anne is trying to get Hopkins to drop out, as she is guaranteed breeding rights to the Sheikh’s entry, Al-Hattal, should her own horse achieve victory.
Complicating matters is the Sheikh’s daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), the Sheikh’s sole remaining child and a woman who has ridden horses all her life but who is barred from riding in the race because of her gender. Also, if Al-Hattal does win, then she must marry its rider, Prince Bin Al Reeh (Said Taghmaoui), a man of high standing but little interest to her. At one point she is kidnapped by the Sheikh’s nephew, who holds her ransom for Al-Hattal. Hopkins ends up trying to rescue her, and it is at this point that both times I have seen the film (in the theatre and on DVD), that I wonder, isn’t there supposed to be a race going on? Nevertheless, Hopkins rejoins the race and he and Hidalgo undergo all the trials of the desert: bandits, the sun, locusts, windstorms, nasty animals and other things.
Ultimately, this is a story that might be a bit too expansive for its script. The locations are beautiful, the action is interesting enough and Mortensen is of course his solid and enjoyable self. However, the film suffers from an overall unsteadiness in storytelling. Too many characters are introduced without good enough development or resolutions. There is something missing throughout, as it seems we are following more than one main character, which detracts from the primary one involving Hopkins and Hidalgo. This is a pleasant adventure movie that probably works best for families looking for a good, swashbuckling desert adventure that maintains a self-restrictive tone as far as gratuitous language, sex and violence are concerned.
As a DVD, “Hidalgo” leaves much to be desired. There are only two bonus features, one of which can only be played on a computer with DVD-Rom capabilities. The “Sand and Celluloid” featurette is only 22 minutes long and barely scratches the surface in terms of relating any major aspects of the production. Instead, it intersperses a few interviews with some behind-the-scenes footage and a whole lot of clips from the film. “America’s First Horse” is less than half that length, and it only serves to tease the viewer with some background information on the great legacy of the horse-riding Native American tribes that once roamed the North American continent. There is a single Easter egg that has a quick look at various Sioux and their horses, but it isn’t all that much to look at. Considering the scope of the film, this is a disappointingly meager amount of bonus material. I suppose if you want to know what it’s really like to shoot in the desert, you need to get the “Lawrence of Arabia” Special Edition DVD. Detracting even more from the bonus material category is the sad fact that there are no “Hidalgo” trailers, only trailers for other Touchstone and Disney films.
In terms of presentation, “Hidalgo” is solid. It has two superb-sounding 5.1 mixes, one in Dolby Digital and one in DTS. The DTS, per usual, has greater dynamic range here, especially in the rear speakers, and it really helps to fill out the background sounds of the desert. On the flip side, the action sequences seem to have been mixed a little hotter on the DTS than on the Dolby Digital, causing a few ear splinters now and then, especially during certain music cues. The transfer is pretty nice: clean and recent. Color video timing is superb, as director Johnston and cinematographer Shelly Johnson really put a great deal of care into the timing of this transfer. It looked good in the theatre but it looks great here.
Overall, “Hidalgo” is a pleasant and old-fashioned action tale that suffers from a lack of cohesion. Mortensen is great as always and Sharif does his ever-reliable best, but overall, the film has proven to be a disappointment for the studio and, while it has many valuable points, it succeeds only in being a slightly above average film. Needless to say, the DVD adds nothing to improve the overall situation.