Filmmaker Joe Johnston is something of a curious anomaly in Hollywood. He got his start as a protégé of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, adopting their style of filmmaking once he became a director with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). He has since made retro adventure films his forte with the likes of The Rocketeer (1991) and Captain America (2011). Yet, for some reason, despite several of his films performing well at the box office, Johnston has managed to avoid the plaudits of his mentors. He remains unknown to mainstream audiences and generally ignored by cinephiles because he lacks a flashy, distinctive style and personality. In 2004, he released Hidalgo, which chronicled legendary long distance rider Frank T. Hopkins and his horse and their participation in an annual 3,000 mile race in Arabia, 1891. 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 barely made back its budget. It’s too bad because Hidalgo isn’t that bad a film. On the contrary, it is a refreshing straight-forward epic action/adventure.
Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his horse, Hidalgo, are known as the greatest long distance/endurance riders in the United States. We meet the man and his horse as they casually catch up to and then easily best an opponent (C. Thomas Howell in a cameo) in a cross-country race. Afterwards, the man makes the mistake of insulting Frank’s Spanish mustang and is knocked out cold for his troubles. With these early scenes, Johnston shows us the contradictions that exist within Frank. He likes to drink and the company of women, but he also has a deep understanding of the Native American Indian (his mother was a member of the Lakota tribe).
After witnessing the aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee, Hopkins becomes a disillusioned lush working as a rodeo clown for a traveling circus run by the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody (J.K. Simmons). To add insult to injury, at one point, the circus recreates a whitewashed version of the massacre. One day, Aziz (Adam Alexi-Malle), an emissary for Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), arrives and questions Frank’ and Hidalgo’s reputation as the greatest endurance rider and horse, respectively.
Aziz challenges Frank to participate in a 1,000 year-old race across 3,000 miles of harsh, Middle Eastern terrain known as the Arabian Desert – along the Persian Gulf and Iraq and across Syria. Or, as Aziz dramatically nicknames it, “the Ocean of Fire.” Frank will race against 100 of the best riders and their horses. Initially, he isn’t interested, but his best friend at the circus, Chief Eagle Horn (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), convinces him that the race will help Frank find and ultimately redeem himself.
During this first third of Hidalgo, Viggo Mortensen does a good job portraying a flawed man wracked with guilt over what happened at Wounded Knee. We see the pain etched across his face and how he tries to hide it by drinking. Frank is adrift in life as Chief Eagle Horn tells him, “You are the one who rides far from himself, and wishes not to look home.” With his rugged good looks and low-key attitude, Mortensen is a good fit to play a man of action like Frank Hopkins. With his squinty-eyed, laconic performance, it seems like the actor is channeling a bit of Clint Eastwood while also incorporating some of Harrison Ford circa his Indiana Jones films in the way he carries himself during the film’s various exciting action sequences. After the phenomenal 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 theaters.
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) for good measure. This is the kind of film that the widescreen aspect ratio was made for as director Johnston and his director of photography Shelly Johnson (Captain America) expertly utilize it, especially once Frank arrives in the Middle East and sees these grand desert vistas. They stage the action and racing sequences mostly in classic long shots so we can see where everyone is in relation to each other. This is where the widescreen aspect ratio really shines as we see the many horses head off into the desert, which culminates in an impressive set piece where Frank and Hidalgo narrowly escape a massive sandstorm.
Johnston and Johnson do an excellent job of capturing the harsh extremes of the inhospitable Middle Eastern desert: the blistering hot midday sun and searing heat as well as the bitterly cold nights. Then, there’s the swarm of locusts as Frank and Hidalgo are engulfed by so many of them that the sky is completely blotted out. There are even the immense sand dunes and an enormous dust storm that swallows up anything in its path. Even more punishing is the seemingly endless days without any human contact – just desolate desert that goes on forever. Johnston conveys the increasingly devastating effects of this environment by gradually draining the color out of the film until the scene where Hidalgo collapses from exhaustion, which is almost monochromatic as both Frank and his horse are pushed to the very limits of their endurance.
If there are any problems with this film it feels like Johnston is trying a little too hard to prove its epic credentials. The pacing of the first third of the film 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.
John Fusco has had a long-standing affinity for and fascination with American frontier history having written the screenplays for Thunderheart (1992) and both Young Guns movies. In 1989, he was even adopted into the Ogla-Lakota tribe after spending five years on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was there that he first heard of Frank T. Hopkins while doing research into lost Native American horse bloodlines. Fusco had become close to a medicine man who told him about Hopkins and his pinto mustang in the late 1800s. He recounted stories of the rider’s long-distance racing prowess and Fusco realized that it would make a great movie.
Fusco began to research Hopkins and the horse race, but did not uncover many facts. He not only found Hopkins’ own writing and interviews, but also a “few articles in old magazines and some relevant work by historians” as well as oral histories of Native American elders. Fusco used this material as the basis for his script, which he researched and wrote over 12 years without any kind of deal in place with a movie studio.
Jurassic Park III (2001) had been a tough shoot for director Joe Johnston and he was in no hurry to go back to work. Six months later, producer Casey Silver sent him a copy of Fusco’s script. The director was still feeling burnt out and didn’t read it for three weeks. When he finally did, Johnston loved the script and wanted to make the film, envisioning it as a classic action/adventure story from the 1940s and 1950s. Silver had worked previously with Johnston on October Sky (1999) and admired his “restraint” and “stoic sensibility.”
Fusco’s script and Johnston’s approach drew actor Viggo Mortensen to the project. He had ridden horses as a child, but with less and less frequency when he became an adult. Fortunately, he picked it up again while making The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but still needed to do extensive training. He did most of his own riding and stunts. The actor worked closely with horse trainer Rex Peterson and stunt coordinator Mike Watson. Mortensen rode bareback, jumped on the horse at a gallop, fell off a few times and even got kicked, but survived with very little injuries. For the actor, it was all about authenticity, “to get something that you can’t really buy otherwise, digitally or otherwise, especially with a movie like this which isn’t a special effects driven movie, you can follow me in one shot without cutting.”
Peterson spent three months finding the right horse to play Hidalgo. The ideal animal had to look right and be “gentle enough for an actor to ride,” which turned out to be a horse named T.J. Peterson then had to find horses to double for T.J. (they would do all the tricks, jump, race, and so on) who played Hidalgo in all of the close-ups. Not surprisingly, Mortensen bonded with T.J. – so much so that at the end of the production he bought the horse.
Hidalgo received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and called it, “bold, exuberant and swashbuckling, it has the purity and simplicity of something Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn might have bounded through.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Hokey though it is, with a horse-hugger ending thrown in to boot, Hidalgo has a sweet-natured appeal that welcomes sentiment without overdoing it.” In his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “But I'll be gosh-darned if the sound of the wind in Mortensen's dyed-red locks as he races across the sand, and that squint of determination in his dust-caked, gray-green eyes, aren't just diverting enough to turn Hidalgo into one rousing, if rote, adventure.”
However, In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “The much too long, primitively plotted family action adventure Hidalgo, directed by Joe Johnston, has a handful of well-handled sequences but, given the young audience the film is intended for, the picture may be like having to finish an entire pot of broccoli to get a couple of jelly beans for dessert.” USA Today’s Claudia Puig felt the film had “an old-fashioned saga with adventure writ large, grand vistas and a stalwart hero. Unfortunately, it is limited by one-dimensional, even stereotypical characters and a predictable and drawn-out plot.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “So this not-so-ripping yarn about Western will triumphing over what Allah decrees, directed with love for scale and location by Joe Johnston and written with too much love of man-to-horse chat by John Fusco, never quite settles into its paces.”
When it was released, Hidalgo faced criticism challenging the studio’s claim that it was based on a true story. Basha and CuChullaine O’Reilly, equestrian enthusiasts who founded the Long Riders’ Guild, edited and published an annotated version of Hidalgo and Other Stories by Frank T. Hopkins, which refuted a lot of the cowboy’s claims that were included in the film. For example, their extensive research found no evidence that Hopkins ever worked for Buffalo Bill Cody, but the most damning revelation was that the Ocean of Fire race that is featured so prominently in the film never actually existed. The O’Reillys claimed that Hopkins’ was hardly the heroic adventurer that Hidalgo presents him as.
Hidalgo plugs in the usual action/adventure clichés, but does so in an entertaining manner. Viggo Mortensen delivers a heartfelt performance and continued to show his impressive range as he successfully transformed himself into a bonafide swashbuckling hero. Hidalgo is unapologetically old school, which may explain why it failed to connect with contemporary audiences. Granted, there isn’t an original bone in the body of this film, but at the end of the day, who cares? It pushes all the right buttons as a well-crafted adventure film that takes us away to an exotic land rich in detail and full of atmosphere for its entire running time. Yes, it plays fast and loose with the facts and, in retrospect, should not have been marketed as being based on a true story. Judged on its own merits, however, Hidalgo is an engaging, well-crafted film.
Desai, Anuj. “A Mirage in the Desert.” Slate. March 4, 2004.
Hidalgo Production Notes. 2004.
Otto, Jeff. “Interview: Joe Johnston, John Fusco and Viggo Mortensen.” IGN. March 4, 2004.