November 28, 2004
Filmmaker Joe Johnston is something of a curious anomaly in Hollywood. He got his start as a protégé of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and adopted their style of filmmaking once he became a director. He has since made retro adventure films his forte with the likes of The Rocketeer (1991) and October Sky (1999). Yet, for some reason, these movies have not been able to break out on a mainstream level like his mentors. His latest, Hidalgo (2004), is no different. Marred by claims that it took huge liberties with the actual historical figures and events it was based on, the film was snubbed by critics and audiences alike. It’s too bad because Hidalgo isn’t that bad a movie. On the contrary, it is a refreshing straight-forward epic adventure.
Frank T. Hopkins (Mortensen) and his horse, Hidalgo, are known as the greatest long distance/endurance riders in the United States. After witnessing the aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee, Hopkins becomes a disillusioned lush working for a traveling circus run by the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody (Simmons). A visiting sheik is told of Frank’s reputation and challenges him and his horse to a 1,000 year-old race across 3,000 miles of harsh, Middle Eastern terrain (a.k.a. “the ocean of fire”) against 100 other horses. Initially, Frank isn’t interested but his best friend convinces him that the race will help find and ultimately redeem himself.
Viggo Mortensen, with his rugged good looks and low key attitude is a good fit to play a man of action and of few words, like Frank Hopkins. With his squinty-eyed, laconic performance, it seems like Mortensen is channeling Clint Eastwood. The actor also seems to be incorporating a bit of Harrison Ford circa his Indiana Jones films in the way he carries himself during the film’s various exciting action sequences. After the phenomenonal success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy anything that the cast did immediately afterwards was going to be scrutinized heavily. Unfortunately, Mortensen was a victim of this and Hidalgo disappeared quickly from theatres.
Hidalgo is beautifully shot in the style of an old school epic, like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) by way of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with a dash of The Black Stallion (1979). Director Joe Johnston does an excellent job of capturing the unforgiving vastness of the inhospitable Middle Eastern desert: the blazing sun and searing heat, the immense sand dunes and an enormous dust storm that swallows up anything in its path. Johnston really conveys a sense of place with this richly detailed and atmospheric world.
If there are any problems with this film it feels like they are trying a little too hard to prove their epic credentials. The pacing of the first third of the movie is a little slow and it takes too long to get to the Middle East and the race. It’s obvious what the filmmakers were going for with this structure. The first third establishes Frank’s character and his motivations for entering the race. However, this back-story could have been conveyed more succinctly in flashbacks or through expositional dialogue—although, the latter would have been much harder with a man of few words like Frank.
A nine-minute featurette entitled “Sand and Celluloid” barely scratches the surface of how much work went into making this movie. It’s a shame that the neglect Hidalgo faced upon its initial release continues with the DVD. The cast and crew underwent a grueling 119-day shoot, most of it in Morocco. Johnston talks briefly about the challenges of such an ambitious project because of the large scale. For example, over 800 different horses were used over the course of the movie! The crew also had to deal with harsh weather conditions, most significantly dust and strong winds that damaged cameras and made it very difficult to film scenes.
The only other extra is a DVD-ROM feature entitled “Hidalgo: America’s First Horse,” that explores the history of the Mustang horse and the real Frank Hopkins.
Hidalgo plugs in the usual action/adventure cliches but does so in an entertaining manner. Viggo Mortensen delivers a heartfelt performance and continues to show his impressive range as he successful transforms himself into an action/adventure hero. Granted there isn’t an original bone in the body of this movie but at the end of the day, who cares? Hidalgo pushes the right buttons as a well-crafted adventure film.