At way over two hours in length, HIDALGO is overlong, no doubt about it. Still, this rip-snorting answer to the old-time Saturday morning serials has two things going for it that save it from its stock characters and cliché situations. One is Viggo Mortensen, a rugged sort of eye candy who brings a soulful yet hard-bitten quality to his character of an angst-ridden cowboy with a wonder horse. The other is that self-same wonder horse. I dont know how they did it, and I suspect CGI might play a part, but, darn, that equine can act.
Mortensen is Frank Hopkins, the son of an Army scout and a Sioux princess who witnesses the massacre at Wounded Knee and ends up in Wild Bill Hickocks Wild West show in 1890. The attraction isnt so much Hopkins, who is mostly drunk, but the eponymous horse, Hidalgo, a mustang billed as the best long-distance racer in history. The long distance here means hundreds of miles over the vast and wild terrain of the equally wild west. Word of this claim gets back to a Bedouin sheik who thinks that his horse, a thoroughbred Arabian with a genealogy going back further than the royal houses of Europe, is the better animal. He challenges Hopkins and Hidalgo to take part in the annual Bedouin horse race, 3000 miles through the harshest terrain found on the Arabian Peninsula. Its a tradition going back 1000 years. Another tradition is the way the hardships of the race kills off its participants. Naturally, that gives Hopkins pause, but the $100,000 prize quells those qualms and our boys are off to the other side of the world for an adventure right out of the Arabian Nights.
His host, the sheik of sheiks (Omar Sharif) is plagued by a cranky pancreas, a fondness for tales of the American west, and the standard-issue spunky daughter. She would rather be riding horses herself instead of being promised as the fifth wife of a guy she cant stand. The usual. Theres also the standard-issue spunky English noblewoman, a devoté of horse breeding who travels the desert in corsets and starched shirtwaists while casting appreciative glances Hopkins way, the sort of appreciative glances that might be used to appraise the worthiness of a breeding stallion, if you catch my drift. Speaking of which, shes got a horse in the same race, not that shes actually riding it, of course, it would wilt her linen peplum jackets. She wants more than just the money, though, she wants breeding rights to the sheik of sheiks stallion. Her husband, a blink-and-youll-miss-it cameo by Malcolm MacDowell that reminds us why we adore this man so much, is conveniently waiting for her back on the ship that brought them.
Throw in a few princes, their horses, their falcons, and their sneering contempt for Hopkins and all you need is the comic relief of the servant who follows the cowboy around telling him how hes going to die in that desert. It would be a shame to leave him out and so hes included in the form of a goatherd turned thief turned servant who just happens to speak English.
The trek across the desert is shown with a Hollywood style of grueling. Mortensens lips stay chapped and there is a definite case of incipient skin cancer in that sunburn. It gives the filmmakers a chance to whip up an impressive sandstorm from which our heroes can flee, not to mention that nifty plague of locusts. The race is interrupted by people dying en route and Hopkins breaking tradition by stopping to help one of them. This is would be the scene where the prince in peril tells Hopkins that Allah has written that he, the prince, should die there, and Hopkins gets to set him straight about free will, cowboy style. Theres also the sequence where Hopkins has to rescue that spunky daughter after getting caught in a compromising position with her, and another where the noblewoman tries to make him an offer he cant refuse.
A little less desert would have helped this film immensely. Once theyve shown that arsty contrast exposure and the squiggly heat waves emanating from the ground a few dozen times, the point is made. As for the plot, it rollicks right along, with beheadings, shootings, and double-dealings galore all played out with a cartoon lack of excessive blood. Sharif avoids the pitfalls of caricature while eking out a bit of gentle humor. If his action scenes wielding a sword are a little awkward, never mind, he wields his considerable movie star charm with exquisite agility, taking the role to heights that arent there in the script.
As for the plot, well, take it or leave it. The real story here is a man and his horse with Hidalgo being the more mature of the two. I know that sounds odd, but it works because Mortensen sells the genuine respect that Hopkins has for his horse and the horses genuine affection for this lost soul of a man. Theres something in the way the sound people add in the gentle whinnying and the cameraman catches just the right look in the horses eye, he really does seem to be the sensible one who sees the big picture to Hopkins shrug to the future. Were talking serious chemistry.
HIDALGO tries to throw in some serious issues, the slave boy Hopkins buys in Arabia in order to save him, the Native American spirituality Hopkins craves and rejects, but it gets lost in the mix. Though, as an escapist fantasy of a popcorn flick, albeit one based on actual events, it does have its moments. I just wish there were a half-hour less of them.