Posted: Monday, March 22, 2004

The words "based on a true story" have a special, almost magical resonance for some moviegoers. Take my mother-in-law, for example. She'll have nothing to do with fiction - it's a waste of her time. Ah, but true life? Real drama? Now that's worth paying attention to, whether it be The Alamo, or The Jessica Lynch Story. Keeping in mind the importance of a film's purported veracity, it's easy to understand why some audiences are up in arms over Disney's latest big offering, Hidalgo.

Hidalgo, though ostensibly the story of the spirited and determined little paint mustang of the title, is really the story of his owner, Frank Hopkins, a pony express courier turned sideshow act in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Hopkins, a notorious storyteller, and Hidalgo were purported to being the one of the finest teams in the country, with Hidalgo carrying the title of greatest endurance racer in the world. It is exactly this claim that draws the attention of a powerful Arab sheik who believes that no mixed blood animal could possible outlast his prized and pure Arabian stallion. And such it is that Hopkins is challenged to compete in a magnificent and terrifying race, 3,000 miles across the burning sands of Arabia. To win means riches and fame; to lose likely means death. Are Frank and Hidalgo up to the challenge? Of course they are, and off they go. But there are deeper lessons to be learned here. Frank, it seems, hides a dark secret that makes him particularly sensitive to the claims of pureblood supremacy. Hopkins, it is revealed, is half indian, and if that weren't enough, he witnessed his people massacred at Wounded Knee, all due to misunderstandings over cultural differences. Think we'll see any parallels when we get to the middle east?

Disney has done a great job advertising this film with a thrilling preview and ad campaign that focus on the majesty of the horse, while capitalizing on the recent success of star Viggo Mortensen. However, it's those five little words that are drawing both the crowds and the controversy. Apparently, as naysayers have been quick to point out, there is no proof anywhere that Frank Hopkins ever went anywhere near Arabia, let alone participated in a 3,000-mile race there. In fact, Arab scholars have gone so far as to suggest that the very idea of such a race even ever existing is preposterous, claiming that a race of that length would end "somewhere in Romania."* In fact, the only source that can corroborate any of these claims, are the writings of Hopkins himself and, as previously mentioned, he was never considered all that reliable. It may well be that the only thing true about the story is that it was just that, a story. However, defenders have noted that just because there is no proof that Hopkins did the things he said he did, there's no proof that he didn't either. And, other historians note that the bedouins frequently held contests considered illegal by the powers that be, and were kept under wraps. So, there is a kernel of possibility, however remote, that the exploits of Hidalgo are mired in fact after all. However, it does seem just a tad disingenuous for Disney to pass off a likely fable as a true story, although if exposed, their little white lie is only likely to distress those who considered Walt's company a paragon of truth and fidelity, a group that does not count me among its members. Disney lies and covers things up all the time, so why should this be any different?

Actually, upon watching, it becomes pretty obvious that even if this is true, the studio is using that word "based" pretty loosely. Everything from marauding bands of thieves, to attack leopards, to Indian spirits add up to good old fashioned Hollywood-style entertainment. Now if only the movie were more entertaining. What should snap, plods, and what should grab us, loses its grip quickly. At two-and-a-half hours, Hidalgo is too heavy to support itself. Add to that a weighty self-importance and a hundred different themes fighting for dominance, and you've got yourself a mess. I found myself hoping we could concentrate more on Hidalgo and less on Frank who, frankly, was weighin' us down.

Hidalgo is mostly fun with some good action and a few thrills, but its length and issues make it a little difficult to sit through. Were it truly a work of non-fiction, we could have delved a little deeper into the characters, exposing weaknesses and strengths along the way, all reflected in the complex and magnificent character of Hidalgo. As it is, the horse gets shortchanged while the rest of the cast sits around waiting for the starting bell. Grade: C+

Hidalgo is rated PG-13 for light language and cartoon violence.

* - quoted from Dr. Awad Al-Badim, director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

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