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Hidalgo (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 05 March 2004
Some time later, he’s working for Buffalo Bill (J.K. Simmons, who never gets the opportunity to cut loose as he did in “Spider-Man”) on his Wild West Show. He’s friendly with Annie Oakley (Elizabeth Berridge) and Indian chief Eagle Horn (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), evidently a fictional replacement for the real-life Sitting Bull, who did travel with the Wild West Show. But Hopkins is drinking too much; Hidalgo has to rescue him from a minor disaster by grabbing the man’s pants in his teeth and hauling him away. (At times, Hidalgo shows the intelligence of Roy Rogers’ Trigger.)

He’s approached by Aziz (Adam Alexi-Malle), a representative of an Arabian sheikh. Every year for a thousand years, he says, there has been a great race across the Arabian Peninsula, testing the mettle of the great Arabian horses the sheikhs prize so highly. No outsider has ever entered the race, but Hopkins’ reputation as a long-distance rider—as from Natchez to Vermont, for example—leads Aziz to challenge the laconic horseman to enter the race, called the Ocean of Fire.

Hopkins is at loose ends, with no direction in his life, so he goes to Arabia for the race. Why not? (And how did he pay for this?) There he meets lofty Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif, looking great), who’s very interested in tales of the Old West. He’s astounded to learn that Hopkins knew Wild Bill Hickok, and demands to know more about the Gunfight at the OK Corral. But he’s reluctant to allow Hopkins to enter the race.

Hopkins offers Riyadh his Colt .45 Peacemaker if he can be allowed to enter the race. Riyadh has no sons to enter in the race; all five have died or been killed, and of course he cannot allow his spunky, tomboyish daughter Jazira (Zulekha Robinson) to ride his prized stallion, Al-Hattal.

An English noblewoman, Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard), has entered her Arabian mare, with the prize for her being not the $100,000 prize money, but the stud services of Al-Hattal. Like everyone else, she is scornful of Hopkins and Hidalgo.

He’s surprised when he is given goatherd Yusef (Harsh Nayyar) as his groom, or something, and adds a young slave boy to his small retinue. In terms of Yusef’s often salty dialogue, writer John Fusco seems to be channeling Gabby Hayes.

Then they’re off, across the blazing desert. From this point on, “Hidalgo” resembles “Bite the Bullet,” an earlier epic about an endurance horse race across a desert, in that case the American Southwest. Instead of focusing on the actual race, since it takes place over several days, Johnston and Fusco keep coming up with events and obstacles designed to test the mettle of Hopkins and his clever, determined horse.

Trouble is these are sprinkled into the narrative with such regularity, and designed with such familiarity, that eventually they lose their dramatic value. Also, at 136 minutes, the movie is much too long. It also strains credibility: don’t any of these guys ever look at a map? It’s not like their course is laid out for them, and Hopkins, for one, is completely unfamiliar with the area. We see him consult a compass—once. I guess it’s all based on instinct or something. All the way across the desert, somehow the caravan that includes Riyadh, Jazira and Lady Anne manages to stay ahead of the galloping riders. They use camel trails, we’re told. I suspect shortcuts through the fourth dimension, since there’s no way in reality these heavily-laden camels could get AHEAD of the racers. But they do, with tents set up, wells dug and everything.

Water is occasionally an issue. So is the terrain. But nothing can stop the race, even when some riders and their mounts fall out. Hopkins rescues one competitor (and his falcon), evades traps set by others, and keeps riding. A minor point, but one that tended to irk me: in defiance of traditional movie grammar, this east-to-west race always proceeds across the screen from left to right. Sure, the camera could be south of the race, but generally movies left-to-right represents eastward motion. Think about all the planes you’ve seen in movies. A minor point, I concede.

Shelly Robinson’s photography is often magnificent, but also very often much the same. There are so many shots of Mortensen and his horse (which he bought after shooting) silhouetted against setting or rising suns that, beautiful individually though they are, they become tiresome. He uses light and shadow effective; many of the night scenes are in especially low light, a daring approach in a film set in the desert.

There are occasional scenes that involve expertly-done special effects: a mountainous sandstorm that growls like a basso-profundo lion, leopards that endanger the horses, a sky-blackening cloud of locusts that provide food for Hopkins and Hidalgo. These are professionally accomplished.

The dialog is occasionally amusing and/or colorful. When Hopkins arrives at the new base camp, Yufef comments, “You survived the sandstorm. Allah must have a more severe judgment waiting for you.”

More complications follow: the Sheikh’s greedy, no-good, pilgrim-robbing nephew kidnaps Jazira AND the Sheikh’s essential, decades-old horse breeding manual. Equipped with a gun that can be fired two dozen times before it needs reloading, Hopkins and Hidalgo ride to the rescue. There’s a whiff of a romance between him and Jazira, who daringly lowers her veil for him, but it’s only a whiff. Lady Davenport tries a more direct approach: offering him money—and herself—if he’ll manage to lose the race.

But Hopkins is made of sterner stuff, and so is Hidalgo. The horse tumbles into a spear-laden pit, skewered on one of the spiky traps. But Hopkins pulls him out, cauterizes the wound, and again the horse rides like the wind. Toward the end, Hopkins is guided by the wavering spirits of his Indian ancestors. Is there any doubt who wins the race?

This is Mortensen’s first big starring role after several years of working on “The Lord of the Rings.” He looks right, he has the right moves, but the role of Hopkins is severely underwritten. His dialogue is minimal, and he’s rarely required to express any emotions. Mortensen is a very good actor, but he’s also the kind who plays his cards close to his vest, as it were: he’s an under-player. Combined with the underwritten role, Mortensen simply cannot make Hopkins very interesting. This is supposed to be a journey to personal redemption, but we haven’t been shown clearly enough just what about him needs to be redeemed. At one point, Yusef finds a nearly-full bottle of booze in Hopkins’ belongings, but we never see him backsliding in Arabia. For Hopkins, the character, to be our central focus required him to be more colorful than he is. Mortensen is trapped in the desert of the script without a horse.

“Hidalgo” should have been fiercer, more colorful, with a character whom we recognize needs to undergo a spiritual renewal. Instead we get a guy who’s more or less perfect, who just gets better. That’s not the way to construct a story like this. The movie is entertaining, partly for the supporting characters; Sharif seems to have been out in that desert ever since “Lawrence of Arabia” (the two movies were shot on some of the same North African locations), and is a welcome sight. Mortensen certainly deserves a movie of his own, but “Hidalgo” really isn’t it. It’s a reasonably entertaining movie, but too long with the crises much too familiar.

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