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Posts Tagged ‘Hidalgo’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 26th 2004:

Les: ‘Other than the Cresta Run, name a dangerous race.’
Contestant: ‘Arabs!’
– Famous but quite probably apocryphal exchange on Family Fortunes

Hi-diddle-di-range, an actor’s life is strange. One minute there you are, plugging profitably along minding your own business as solid character support and the occasional love-interest in chick flicks, and then suddenly Stuart Townsend drops out, your agent phones, and you find yourself on a plane to New Zealand to play one of the lead roles in the greatest achievement in the history of popular cinema. You are suddenly a star – an icon, even. Where do you go from here?

Well, the answer appears to be: Joe Johnston’s Hidalgo, a Middle-East-meets-Wild-West romp which marks Viggo Mortensen’s first attempt at a post-Lord of the Rings career. I have to say that judged solely on the basis of this movie, the omens for Mortenson’s future career shade slightly more towards the likes of Mark Hamill than Harrison Ford.

Supposedly based on a true story (a claim which has already provoked much controversy, and to which I will only respond with: Sh’yeah, course it is!), this is the tale of half-Native American cavalry courier Frank Hopkins (Mortensen) and his horse Hidalgo. Guilt over his role in late-19th century atrocities against the native tribes leads Hopkins to end up a drunken corporate shill and entertainer (he is presumably in the next booth to Tom Cruise’s character from The Last Samurai, who – horse excepted – has a virtually identical back-story).

However, a chance for redemption appears when some Arabs turn up and get snotty: Hopkins’ boss, Buffalo Bill, has billed his horse as the world’s greatest endurance racer, which they take some exception to. He is invited to participate in the Ocean of Fire, a big-money high-stakes race across Arabia. Not entirely surprisingly he says yes, setting the stage for all sorts of rootin’-tootin’, dodgy racial stereotyping, and long shots of sand-dunes.

Nearly all of Hidalgo is quite daft and some bits of it are exceedingly silly indeed, but for all that he makes the least convincing part-Native American in the history of the universe, Mortensen’s legions of fans will probably not find much to complain about. Perhaps intentionally, in this film he inhabits terrain not entirely different to that he covered as Aragorn – hanging around in tents trying to sweet-talk the disapproving father of his latest conquest, looking intense on horseback, giving it a bit in the fight scenes, and so on. He does mumble rather a lot though.

Those less partial to the Scandinavian heart-throb may find Hidalgo slightly harder going. This is rather a long film, mainly because it takes its time getting anywhere. The first pre-race forty-five minutes sets the scene rather agreeably and atmospherically, setting up the characters and story and such like. But rather than exploding into life at this point the race itself turns out to be really rather dull, consisting of endless shots of our man riding rather slowly over sand-dunes in silhouette. The only part of the film with any oomph to it is a spot of bandit-fighting and princess-rescuing that Viggo goes in for during half-time in the race – which it must be said is blatantly only there to perk things up a bit, and has the regrettable consequence of bloating the running-time up even more. Things never quite grind completely to a halt, but this is still the kind of film where you could pop out to the concessions stand at any number of points and come back without having lost the plot in any way.

But it’s colourful and has an odd sort of novelty, and the cast is fairly good: Hollywood Rent-a-Sheikh Omar Sharif pops up as, guess what, a crusty old Bedou with a heart of gold, and Louise Lombard is rather swish as a bloodstock-crazy British aristo. Malcolm McDowell pops up very briefly near the start, but regrettably doesn’t hand around long – clearly double-booked to eat some other scenery in a different film. The cinematography looks nice even if some of the CGI effects are a bit jarring.

Of course, any film about a cowboy heading off to the Middle East and sorting out all the Arabs does not have go out of its way these days to acquire a (probably unlooked-for) topical subtext. To be fair to Hidalgo it doesn’t look to make any sort of serious point at all, but it is interesting that the film’s total reverence for Native Americans is in no way replicated in its attitude towards Arabs, many of whom get a pretty raw deal from the script. I’m not entirely sure as to whether or not the film’s references to the race passing through Iraq are anachronistic or not, but either way they are wont to make even the most casual viewer draw comparisons.

Hidalgo is a rather old-fashioned film struggling to assimilate a very modern sort of message, about how who you are is more important than where you’ve come from. It’s a bit of a mixed bag all told, and outstays its welcome quite considerably. But it’s jolly, unobjectionable fare, even if it could really do with a bit less Viggo and a bit more vigour.

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