March 05, 2004


Hidalgo poster A Boy And His Horse

starring: Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson, Louise Lombard, Adam Alexi-Malle, Saïd Taghmaoui's pointy beard, Silas Carson's baffled expression, Harsh Nayyar, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Peter Mensah as the Salah character, a little bit of C. Thomas Howell, and a dash of Malcolm McDowell. Oh, and T.J. the horse, of course.
directed by Joe Johnston. Written by John Fusco.
running time: 136 minutes
MPAA says: PG-13 for adventure violence and some mild innuendo.
Release date: March 5, 2004
Seen at: a Coke Products Theatre (The Regal Gateway 16 in Austin)

Hidalgo, based on the life of Frank T. Hopkins and starring Viggo Mortensen, may not be the movie you expect. It's a dime-novel, cowboy adventure with serial-movie action; there's romance and evil and conspiracies and betrayal, and quicksand. It's the world as seen through Buffalo Bill Cody's wild tales. But it is also a story about bloodlines and proud people and an ancient heritage of faith. Not necessarily the ones you may think it's about.

Don't expect Lawrence of Arabia. This movie makes no excuses for being filmed right through the wire-rimmed glasses of a late 19th century audience's desire for tales of exotic derring do, not so much Indiana Jones as Annie Oakley and a bit of Jules Verne. The film takes a risk in accepting a naive, stereotypical view of a world that never quite completely existed.

Be warned. Men fall. Horses die.

Horse People

I should admit, I was not one of those girls who was crazy over horses growing up. I did some riding as a kid and read all the requisite books (Black Beauty, A Horse Called Mystery, and so forth), but found horses only as interesting as any other animal (Born Free and Living Free did more for me). I must have more the pack/hunter mentality (wolves and dogs) than an understanding of and sympathy with the herd (yum, prey).

It's the desert, and the Bedouin culture, and, yes, Viggo Mortensen's long legs that made this movie a must-see on my opening-day calendar. Lawrence of Arabia is the inevitable comparison, and ranks high as one of my favourite films, and going in I expected something as cerebral from Hidalgo, something as cinematographically grand. Comparing it to that epic does Hidalgo a disservice. Once I let go of the false expectations, Hidalgo was very good—Raiders of the Lost Ark is another of my favourite movies (a near-perfect film, but we can argue that later). With Viggo's reputation for being a Thinking Man, my guess is critics were surprised to find him in an Indiana Jones movie. There is no deep examination here of the clash of European and African cultures, although the movie does have some interesting things to say about two similar cultures an ocean of sand and an ocean of sea apart. Hopkins' personality is as complexly layered as Indie's—which is to say, once you know a few details about him the sketch is complete. The ending made me sniffle, so it did something right.

Cast of Thousands (most with hooves)

The horse is a fine animal-actor, but its main contribution is to mug the camera from the same angle with the same horsey expression too many times (blame the director). I wouldn't say it carries the film, but it's nice to watch it run. It's a lovely horse: small and solid and individual. The Bedouin characters are mostly caricatures, like everyone else in the film: the noble guy, the weasel, the hapless guy with the look of perpetual fretfulness, the spunky girl, the villain with the hidden heart of gold; all of them stepped right out of a 19th-century engraving, and some of them with their own caricatured mental image of the cowboy. The British characters—Major Davenport and his young, beautiful, neglected wife Lady Anne (Malcolm McDowell in a sliver of a role and Louise Lombard), an encampment of soldiers guarding a well—have about as much depth as the real Frank Hopkins might have managed to give them while telling the story over drinks at a card table. But the costumes are sumptuous and the sets have just the right mood and just enough detail to pack the adventure around. The screen is edge-to-edge handsome men posing grandly and, as mentioned, the spunky girl (Zuleikha Robinson).

Our intro to Hopkins shows that he has run and won races before against effete stuffed-shirts on fancy horses, and that you can say anything you'd like about him, but don't insult his horse. After delivering the dispatch with orders that bring about the slaughter at Wounded Knee in December 1890, he slides into drinking and despair. We learn that his mother was Sioux, and her name for him was Blue Child; his name as an adult is Far Rider. Hopkins is as much a mustang as his horse, as much from a mixed line. He recognises the strength of this in Hidalgo, but in himself he finds it a weakness, something to be hidden.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman is Chief Eagle Horn, reduced to parody and caricature in the wild west show—idealised but reviled; the audience pelts him with food as he dutifully performs his act, and he humbles himself to bargain for help for his tribe from Buffalo Bill. The horse culture of the plains is disappearing; the wild mustangs have been herded up and will be destroyed because the Sioux cannot pay the exorbitant price on their heads demanded by the government. Hopkins does a lackluster job of translating and presenting the case—he has already given up. The representative (Adam Alexi-Malle) of Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) of the Bedouin, who claims to have the greatest long-distance endurance horse in the world, sees Hopkins' own less than spectacular horse act. Buffalo Bill's claims that this impure animal is the world's greatest endurance runner are clearly an insult. Either remove the title, or raise the stakes to enter the race to Damascus across the Ocean of Fire. Cody sees the potential for profit in the winner's prize. Hopkins sees himself and his horse as too tired and washed-up. Chief Eagle Horn and Annie Oakley and assorted friends from the show see one more race in both man and horse, and put up the stakes for him.

I could go on detailing the movie's plot, but it would take some time. It's as picaresque as those serials, flying from one improbable adventure to the next, one romance to another, one stretch of impossible desert to another even more bleak and treacherous until you wonder how anyone at all can survive the crossing. The accompanying musical score is sweeping fun, easily forgettable but great while it lasts.

As stirring as the race is, as noble the dedication of human to equine and equine to human, it makes me a bit sad to think of people running that punishing, survival-of-the-fittest race for a thousand years. I've heard one reference now that much of the story is apocryphal. Sorting which details are true, which false, would only detract from the wild west tall-tale genre. It's fluff without being dumb, with all sorts of adventure and derring do and horses and fights and special effects storms and horses and romance and horses, and, toward the end of the race, a personal, private victory for the hero that may be too easy for critics to dismiss as "hokey." Oddly, overexposure to the dominant culture, the same tropes repeated again and again, is never considered hokey; yet references to a culture that has been used to provide romanticised entertainment will make some critics cringe. I'll leave out the details of the scene so you can decide on that for yourself, but it hinges on the two nomad cultures. There's a deeper, underlying meaning running here and through the entire film, as steadily and thunderously as a herd of wild horses. This part of the story remains in the mind long after the fun flick is over.

Neigh or Yay!: Horses, Viggo, adventure, bad guys, action, and massive dust storms make for a good Saturday afternoon. Bring extra water.

Outside Food: Hummous, tabbouleh, and warm pita bread from the Phoenicia Bakery, and extra Orangina for my horse.

Previews: A great amount—wait, correction for clarity: a large amount of product commercials and previews, most of them the same boring adverts from television, easy to ignore (if I weren't writing them all down) and nothing great about them. A misplaced Cat in the Hat kiddie featurette on how stamps are made narrated by the child actors with clips of Mike Myers and an advert for the DVD; an Army promo; a man gruesomely pinching himself raw over a Chevy truck; weird lawyers eating Eclipse mints; USA Network and TNT boosting series (my beloved Law & Order at forty feet high is still just the same old television commerical—how about something original for the cinema, folks?); Twix (no doubt available at the concession stand); the Coke ad with the possibly bulimic woman; and a Coke spot with the NASCAR guys still getting the most out of their popularity. Of course, the racers are plastered with all sorts of advertisements for other products. It's surreal; the Coke isn't even all that prominent, and the ad might as well be for the Home Depot.

Next a long delay before the actual previews. I'm famished. The house lights prevent my noshing. Can't tell if that low-bass rumble is from the next theatre or my empty stomach complaining.

The trailer for Disney's animated Home on the Range is, weirdly, the only PG-rated preview in the bunch. A happy Animal Farm collective are trying to avoid being sold off to a mega-rancher, who is no doubt intent on eating them in spite of their ability to sing and dance. Coming April 2.

Mean Girls: Lindsey Lohan as a kid moving from African homeschooling to a US public school, where she is invited to join the Heathers—er, the Plastics. In-fighting, sniping, life as usual for a perfect pretty girl pretending to be average.

Walking Tall: Inspired by a movie inspired by a true story. This time it stars the Rock, becoming an increasingly more polished actor as a war hero returning home to clean up his corrupt hometown and hit people and blow things up.

The Day After Tomorrow: Eerie flocks of birds fleeing in sky-blackening hordes. Freaked-out zoo animals. Polar ice caps melting, temperature inversion, tsunamis, and the government typically ignoring the danger until it's Too Late. Oh, and, based on the trailer, a cast as pale as the snow burying New York City, plus possibly one black homeless guy who may or may not get killed in an early scene. This is from Twentieth Century Fox and the creators of Independence Day, so expect huginormous special effects.

Around the World in 80 Days: Jackie Chan! Jackie Chan! That outbalances even a Disneyfication of a story. Phileas Fogg is somewhat less sinister than the original, a hapless inventor learning to find his courage. Jackie Chan gets to fight. And I may be hallucinating, but I think I saw the governor of California in a long curly wig.

Posted by OutsideFood at March 5, 2004 04:23 PM

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