“Unbridled. Unbroken. Unbeaten.”
Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson
Synopsis: In 1890, a down-and-out cowboy and his horse travel to Arabia to compete in a deadly cross desert horse race.
There’s something wrong when the horse in a movie has more character than its rider, but that’s more or less what happens in Disney’s highly fictionalised account of cowboy Frank Hopkins’ participation in a 3,000-mile horse race across the Middle East, which itself was probably a fabrication of Hopkins’ own imagination. Despite the character’s apparent knack for self-aggrandising, Viggo Mortensen (Carlito’s Way, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) portrays Hopkins as a rather remote and unassuming man who never mutters more than a dozen words at a time. Despite this, his frequent wry comments start to wear a bit thin after a while – as, in fact, does the film during its opening act.
Things improve considerably once the race begins, with Hopkins and his somewhat weather-beaten mustang Hidalgo competing against Arabian princes and deceitful English ladies (Louise Lombard, in a largely superfluous role) and risking the wrath of a powerful Sheik (Omar Sharif – Lawrence of Arabia, The 13th Warrior) whose feisty daughter (Zuleikha Robinson) he befriends. But after that slow start things speed off in an entirely different direction as the film takes a diversion into Indiana Jones territory for a raid on the Sheik’s camp and the subsequent rescue of his daughter from brigands determined to get their hands on his prize stallion. Through it all, Hidalgo (the horse) plods stoically onward, displaying remarkable intelligence, fortitude and stamina. When Hopkins has doubts about continuing, it’s Hidalgo who changes his mind by taking up position at the start line without his rider. In fact, sometimes Hidalgo seems more like a sidekick along the lines of Silver or Trigger than a real horse. He also has superhuman reserves of strength – rising from apparently terminal exhaustion to complete a sprint to the finish line through the searing desert heat at one point.
But then Hidalgo is a Disney movie, in which every incident is designed to appeal to our most basic emotions. The finale of the race is appropriately stirring – and too far-fetched for words to describe, but despite this tendency to veer off towards fantasy like an old soak tempted by the bottle, Hidalgo provides pleasing entertainment once it gets over that tortuously slow opening half hour or so. It also boasts some superb desert photography courtesy of cinematographer Shelly Johnson, and a nice performance from the seventy-two year old Omar Sharif, who once again finds himself swaddled in the garbs of an Arab.
(Reviewed 11th November 2014)