Hidalgo is based on the story of famed endurance rider Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his legendary Spanish mustang for which the film is named. The movie begins in 1890 when Hopkins is serving as a dispatch rider for the U.S. military while distance racing on the side. The life of this part Sioux Indian cowboy becomes deeply scarred after he unwittingly allows the massacre of a Sioux Indian tribe at Wounded Knee. Months later, while working as a cowboy clown in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, he is invited by an Arabian Sheikh (Omar Sharif) to participate in The Ocean of Fire, an annual 3,000-mile horse race across the Arabian Desert. Besides the prize money and personal honor, the outcome would determine whether Hopkins and his reputed mixed-blood mustang could measure up against the famed Bedouin riders and their purebred Arabian stallions.

Omar Sharif and Viggo Mortensen

Omar Sharif and Viggo Mortensen

Directed by Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park 3, Jumanji), Hidalgo seems to have all the right ingredients. Riding off the enormous popularity of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's great to see Aragorn already back in the saddle; naturally, Mortensen does most of his own riding in the film. Filmed on location in Morocco (and partly in California), the cinematography is often beautiful, occasionally breathtaking; you can't help but be reminded of Lawrence of Arabia at times. Add Disney/Touchstone's hype that it's "based on a true story," and it looks like a family-friendly adventure, right?

That's where Hidalgo's problems begin. Apparently, there is serious debate over the facts of Hopkins' life. The movie is based on his autobiography; you can read Hopkins' side of the story here, but beware of plot spoilers. But a simple Internet search yields the more widely held perspective that Hopkins' life as a cowboy is largely a hoax—The Long Riders' Guild, an association of equestrian historians, summarizes their research on this page. In short, it points out that there is no evidence that there was ever an Ocean of Fire race, no record that Hopkins was ever associated with Buffalo Bill, and no proof that Hopkins ever even rode a horse.

It's curious that Disney has made such an effort to puff up their factual claims over this film. There's a potentially good story here, and these historical matters could be overlooked in lieu of a solid adventure film. Unfortunately, Hidalgo can't even get its own facts straight. I found it strange that the filmmakers never bothered to show a map of the race route—until I realized that they probably never looked at one. The finish line is in Damascus … just yards away from a Mediterranean beach. Umm, kids, please refer to an old atlas if that doesn't strike you as impossible. (Is it any wonder that Hidalgo was written by John Fusco, who also drew heat for Western historical inaccuracies in Young Guns I and II?)

Article continues below
The race is on!

The race is on!

Even if the story were true, the film's events have been fictionalized beyond belief. Hopkins is too inconsistent. At times, he's portrayed as a clumsy drunk unable to mount his own horse. Later, he's throwing knives and firing his revolver with deadly accuracy. Hidalgo enjoys focusing on the culture clash between the Bedouins, the British aristocracy, the Old West, and Sioux Indians. Yet despite the strong sense of Hopkins as a fish out of water, he adapts to the Arabian Desert like a natural. In the middle of the race, he and Hidalgo help mount a daring rescue straight out of an Indiana Jones film. Throughout the movie, horse and rider both find their second wind seemingly out of nowhere. And Hidalgo is attributed so much human personality in his looks and actions, they may as well have taken it one step further and let him deliver his lines a la Mr. Ed.

Those qualities might still work for a children's movie in the tradition of Disney's Davy Crockett or The Black Stallion. The first half of Hidalgo is so tame, one wonders why it got a PG-13 rating. It becomes clear later after some bloodless beheadings, impalings, and a somewhat graphic scene of horse surgery, not to mention a silly subplot involving a compromising position with the Sheikh's daughter (Zuleikha Robinson). It's certainly a soft PG-13, but prepare to explain Muslim customs to your small children—including the supposed male punishment for adultery.

Omar Sharif and Zuleikha Robinson

Omar Sharif and Zuleikha Robinson

Therein lies Hidalgo's greatest weakness. It's a little too adult for small children under the age of ten, and at 30 minutes too long, it's too boring for older kids. Plus, between the Sioux and the Bedouins, you'll swear there are nearly as many subtitles as there were in The Passion of The Christ. Conversely, much of the action and dialogue make the movie too lightweight and immature for most adults—not to mention familiar. Like the mustang at the heart of it, Hidalgo is a mixed breed of many other films. Start with the fallen soldier prologue in The Last Samurai or Dances With Wolves, add the scenery of Lawrence of Arabia, throw in a sandstorm similar to the one in The Mummy, liberally sprinkle in action straight out of Indiana Jones and B-movie westerns, and of course, let's not forget the horse race of Seabiscuit.

Article continues below

Some sources have suggested that this movie's release date was pushed back from November 2003 to distance itself from Seabiscuit. I'd say the primary reason is that it's just not that good, although I too found it impossible to not compare the two films by the end. Both center on dramatic races, both horses are considered underdogs, and both riders are searching for personal redemption from their pasts. Despite knowing the outcome to Seabiscuit, that film is carried by superb acting, inspired storytelling, and some truly exciting scenes. Despite some enjoyable moments, those very qualities are generally lacking here. If I were to compare this film to a race, I'd have to say that Hidalgo loses by a nose.

Photos © 2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Knowing that the facts of the story behind this movie are in dispute, does it matter in the film's enjoyment?

  2. Talk about the differences between Muslim beliefs of Allah's will (i.e. predestination) and the free will represented by Hopkins and Western beliefs. What does Scripture have to say about predestination vs. free will?

  3. At what point does Hopkins find personal redemption? What do we need to leave behind in our own lives in order to move forward and pursue God's will?

  4. Compare the perseverance of Hopkins and Hidalgo against all odds with the spiritual race we run every day toward sanctification in Christ (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

This movie has earned a soft PG-13. It's not as violent as Indiana Jones or The Mummy, but there is much action violence involving swordplay. There are a handful of deaths by impaling, and a bloodless, cartoonish beheading. Kids are more likely to be disturbed by a brief scene of relatively graphic horse surgery. As for the mild innuendo, there is one retort about impotency that will sail over the heads of young kids. A significant plot development involves some light humor surrounding the Middle Eastern punishment for adultery; while they never use the word "castration," be prepared to explain the scene to younger children.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 03/11/04

Crowds continued to gather this week to watch Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn fight orcs in the Oscar-winning epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. At the same time, longer lines formed for Mortensen's new starring role in a different adventure film. Hidalgo, the new film from director Joe Johnston (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III), chronicles the "true story" of Frank T. Hopkins, a Native American who championed a mustang named Hidalgo as a racehorse and entered him in a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert.

Article continues below

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls Hidalgo a "sand-sational, fact-based crowd-pleaser. Part old-fashioned boys' action-adventure yarn, part redemption parable … Johnston's movie weds a strong narrative and sweeping visuals to craft a winning tale of friendship, forgiveness, fate and the indomitable spirit of man."

But there's a problem. The film is the farthest thing from "fact-based." At Christianity Today Movies, Russ Breimeier explores how the story has been "fictionalized beyond belief." Meanwhile, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has declared that Hidalgo portrays Arabs and Muslims in a demeaning fashion, and that John Fusco's script is fiction from beginning to end. In the Los Angeles Times, Bobbie Lieberman reports that this "counterfeit cowboy" actually worked as a subway tunnel digger, harbor diver and circus horse handler.

Other religious press critics, while also put off by false claims of historicity, find some things worth praising.

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "Mortensen represents the quintessential cinema westerner, a seeker of justice [who is] opposed to bigotry. He's sickened by the brutality of the frontiersmen toward man and beast alike. And he does not suffer fools. He's not a flag-waving patriot. He's an individualist." But Boatwright faults the film for being "unnecessarily violent" and for trying to "exorcise the white man's guilt by infusing a political correctness."

"The desert is beautiful, the sandstorm is powerful, the comic relief is funny, and horse race is competitive," says Jimmy Akin (Decent Films). "So while Hidalgo may not be 'an incredible true story' or even a powerful story of redemption, it still ends up being an entertaining one."

Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) says, "Other than The Passion, this is the first film I've seen this year that I'd actually recommend."

"Johnston keeps a strong hand upon the production and allows the story to unfold slowly but securely," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "It starts a bit tentatively but gains momentum after the first 30 minutes and literally sails to a strong and rewarding finish."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says the film has "strong moral elements. Frank is a good guy who rebuffs the advances of the women. He helps his enemy. He keeps his own counsel. His only flaw is his drunkenness." But he faults the film on two counts: "One is the violence, and the other is touting the American Indians as better than the Muslims and the Christians."

Article continues below

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) calls it "an enjoyable period adventure that gives viewers an incorruptible protagonist to root for. Whether or not he wins the race, his greater struggle is preserving his decency and humanity in the face of malicious abuse and discrimination. We root—rightfully—for him to succeed. The lack of sex and profanity is also refreshing." But he cautions families about episodes of "Indiana Jones-style violence too intense for young viewers" and "the sheer volume of Indian and Muslim spirituality woven into the story."

I found the film amusing and entertaining, and Mortensen is perfectly cast for the heroic nonchalance of this fictional hero. But when the hero's ordeal comes to its crisis point, we are shown a resolution that credits some vague Native American spirituality, as if calling out to our ancestors is our best source of hope when we're in a time of testing. (The film's central villain is clearly singled out as a Christian.) So go see it if you want to see some impressive, panoramic desert scenery, some breathtaking footage of horses at a full gallop, and for some Indiana Jones-style fun. Don't go expecting spiritual insight or a history lesson. My full review is at Looking Closer.

Meanwhile, mainstream critics are divided, some calling it a worthwhile adventure while others think Johnston's epic is too ambitious and too confused about what it wants to say and be.

A few weeks ago, I talked with Mortensen about his inclination to play heroes who endure ordeals. You can read his thoughts at CT Movies.

from Film Forum, 03/18/04

Andrew Coffin (World) says Hidalgo, which drew mixed reviews last week, "can be forgiven for some of its clichés. No, it's not the stock bad guys or predictable plot lines that are particularly grating—it's the modern twist on the cliché, heavy-handed political correctness, that really sinks this film."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say Hidalgo "presents a predictable struggle imbedded with intrigue, romance, betrayal, and victory. It is a story of humanity and horses, recognizing that for both, what is on the inside is of far more importance than any exterior definition."

Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for adventure violence and some mild innuendo)
Directed By
Joe Johnston
Run Time
2 hours 16 minutes
Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson
Theatre Release
March 05, 2004 by Touchstone Pictures
Browse All Movie Reviews By: