Viggo Mortensen is the hero who battles against an array of evil forces and a treacherous landscape to triumph against the odds, but it’s not Lord of the Rings.
How about this: a film about a horse, supposedly of inferior breeding, who pits himself against thoroughbreds in a race he has no right to win, but it’s not SeaBiscuit.
I could go on. Hidalgo also attempts to deal with the fate of the Native American (or Red Indian, if you’re not up to speed with your PC terminology), looks at the role of women in certain societies (particularly Islam), and examines the concept of racism.
On top of all this, it has some spectacular desert footage, swordfights, horse races, and general mayhem (mostly caused by Viggo). If there is a record for the film with the highest number of ‘silhouette of character in meaningful pose, taken against desert sunset’ shots, Hidalgo probably holds it now.
Why is it such an awful film then?
My guess is that it’s something to do with the poor acting, a script laden with clichés, and about half an hour of wasted viewing time.
The film is based on the true story of Frank Hopkins (Mortensen), a Pony Express courier and his horse Hidalgo. An Arabian prince (Omar Sharif) has heard of the duo’s pace and challenges Hopkins to enter his horse in the ‘Ocean of Fire’ race – a 3,000 mile race across the Arabian desert. Hopkins accepts the challenge, says goodbye to his Native American friends and to his employer ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody, and enters the race. He meets the prince, wins the race, beats the bad guys, rescues the prince’s daughter, conquers his demons and generally behaves in a manner befitting a hero, all the while maintaining his ‘strong silent type’ persona.
While the poor script does him no favours, it would appear that Mortensen is cashing in on his box-office appeal after his exploits in Middle-Earth. He mumbles his way through over two hours of bland dialogue in a husky drawl, and at one stage I’m pretty certain I heard him say “can I have my money and go home now please?”. A few more films like this and box-office appeal will no longer be a factor in his decisions.
Omar Sharif plays the prince, and manages to convey a reasonable blend of arrogance, menace and grudging respect. He is probably the best thing in this film, apart from a rather large tidal wave of sand that looks nothing short of amazing.
Film fans will also notice a 30-second non-credited cameo by Malcolm McDowell, he of A Clockwork Orange (and little else of any significance) fame.
Even if this is the first film you have ever seen, you will find that identifying the bad guys is really easy – they helpfully wear black and sneer a lot. In fight scenes, they adopt the old technique of not shooting straight, and also prancing around a lot while waiting for the good guys to dispose of them one at a time. I think we can assume that there was a fair bit of artistic licence used here.
It’s not all bad – the desert and the sets in general are quite beautiful and spectacular. The buildings appear authentic because they are the real thing – they were created from mud in the same way that many villages and homes in that region are still built. The computer-generated leopards are a disappointment, because they are obviously CGI creations. They are not essential to the plot, so one wonders why they were used at all when they clearly fall short of reality.
That, in one sentence, is really the big problem with Hidalgo: it has far too many elements that are not ‘essential to the plot’. The film is over two hours long, and feels like twice that. The writer (John Fusco) and director (Joe Johnston) have tried to cram in too many themes and sub-plots, have tried to address too many worthy causes, and in doing so have distorted any natural flow which the film might otherwise have.
In much the same way that ‘less is more’, sometimes more is most definitely less, and in this case, Hidalgo is far less than the sum of its parts.