At first glance, Hidalgo seems to be nothing more than an old-fashioned, flat-footed adventure epic plunked down on a vast stretch of desert and amply furnished with the usual Hollywood conventions: a strong, silent cowboy on horseback, a couple of villains with nasty black mustaches, a killer sandstorm and a cloud of locusts straight out of the Old Testament. The movie's central event, for better or worse, is a grueling 3,000-mile horse race called the Ocean of Fire, in which many of the contestants, equine and human, never make it to the first watering hole, much less the finish line, and it's an event that comes to demonstrate the courage and pluck of the bulletproof hero. His name is Frank T. Hopkins. His mount is called Hidalgo.
And we might be tempted to conclude our discussion of this forgettable piece of business right there were it not for the way director Joe Johnston (October Sky, The Rocketeer), screenwriter John Fusco (Thunderheart) and God knows who else have packed it with clumsy endorsements of America's current adventures in the Middle East. Not all the stuffing may be conscious, but the metaphor alert level here is bright red.
Without getting too tangled up in Hidalgo's not-so-subliminal messages, let's just say that the current occupant of the White House and the more combative members of his cabinet would probably love this movie -- if they haven't already screened it as a rallying cry for the political season now at hand. Who among them, after all, could resist the notion of an intrepid ex-Pony Express courier who, with his faithful mustang, careers off to the scorching sands of the Arabian Desert in 1890 and there outduels a hundred of the world's finest purebred Arabian horses in a race across Iraq to Damascus? That many of the lone cowboy's fellow competitors are swarthy paleoliths blathering on about the will of Allah only widens the cultural gulf -- despite the fact that our hero eventually wins the undying respect of everyone from the loftiest Saudi prince to the lowliest extra sponging off the horses. While he's at it, Hopkins (loosely based on a real distance rider) also safeguards the honor of a gorgeous Muslim damsel-in-distress, narrowly avoids ritual castration and shoots half a dozen sword-swinging bedouins and a couple of shifty Arab factotums just for the fun of it.
Yee-haw! Take that, Saddam.
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The parallels between the dashing figure of Hopkins (Lord of the Rings star Viggo Mortensen) and George W. Bush may compute best for devotees of the Fox News Channel. But there's no mistaking this movie hero's unimpeachable nobility, or his will to go it alone. The other riders call Hopkins "infidel" and scoff at the mongrel blood of his horse, but there's no thwarting American resolve once it's aroused. Gotten up in clanking spurs, a faded red bandanna and a sweaty Stetson, this cartoonish mixture of John Wayne and Indiana Jones becomes a fearless dispenser of what even he calls "Western justice." Don't try to snip this guy's testicles. You'll wind up eating your burnoose for lunch.
As for the undersized little mustang, better not sell him short, either. In the most frenzied display of anthropomorphism since Mr. Ed beat Wilbur at checkers, Hidalgo rolls his eyes in disbelief, regularly fetches his master's hat and, for all we know, picks up a few words of Arabic from the other horses as they gallop over the sands.
Louise Lombard pops in as a decadent British aristocrat who wants to get into Hopkins's pants (he declines), and Adam Alexi-Malle does thankless duty as a double-dealing villain called Aziz. It's the saddest task of all to report that Omar Sharif, a great presence in Lawrence of Arabia, shows up here as a haughty sheik with about nine trillion bucks and a collection of American cowboy novels out in his tent. Naturally, he also comes to admire Hopkins -- especially when the cowboy gives him his hard-used Colt .45 as a gesture of international friendship. Beyond embarrassing, Sharif's performance here is sheer ethnic caricature.
On the other hand, the movie doesn't want us to see in its hero a picture of pure U.S. jingoism, so it gives him some Sioux blood and a headful of bad dreams about the massacre at Wounded Knee. In other words, he's yet another version of the conscience-stricken white soldier Kevin Costner played in Dances with Wolves and the Indian killer-turned-noble warrior Tom Cruise gave us in The Last Samurai. Like the Cruise character, good old Hopkins redeems himself in the end and provides a healthy dose of American enlightenment to an entire foreign culture. That's quite a dramatic conceit, of course, not to speak of a grandiose presumption. But what the hell: There's a lot of that going around in Washington and Baghdad these days.