[MOVIE REVIEW]A man, his horse and a very tall tale

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[MOVIE REVIEW]A man, his horse and a very tall tale

If you’re out for a night at the movies and happen upon a theater screening both “Hidalgo” and “The Last Samurai,” take extra care to get yourself into the right room. Because if you get it wrong, you won’t know it until you’re about 30 minutes in. By that point, if you can positively identify Viggo Mortensen playing cowboys-and-Bedouins, it is recommended that you quietly switch theaters.
If you decide to stay for “Hidalgo,” you’ll witness rip-offs of “The Black Stallion,” “Titanic” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” Do these films sound like they’d go well together in a blender? We wouldn’t have thought so either. But such is the mark of Disney trying to make a serious historical film ― out of history that apparently never happened.
“Hidalgo” has been billed as a “true story,” though the opening credits claim only that it’s “based on” the life of a real-life Pony Express courier and long-distance race champion, Frank T. Hopkins (Mortensen).
In the film, Hopkins becomes haunted and depressed after witnessing the U.S. military’s massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890, on orders that he, as a postman, had unwittingly delivered. We next see him drunk and sullen backstage at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, an historic rodeo show that thrilled Western audiences with its re-enactments of heroic white men slaughtering savage red men. (Did someone accidentally “cc” Mortensen while e-mailing a certain screenplay to Tom Cruise?)
At this point, however, it’s not a Japanese man in a tuxedo who comes to proposition our self-pitying hero, but the minion of a wealthy Arabian sheikh, who is offended that Hopkins’ horse, Hidalgo, is said to be the greatest long-distance racer. Rather than renounce Hidalgo’s title, Hopkins agrees to travel half-way around the world to compete against the sheikh’s pure-bred stallions in “The Ocean of Fire,” an ancient 3,000-mile race across the empty deserts of the Middle East.
What all this guilty build-up, and trite mysticism concerning Hopkins’s identity crisis (he is half-white, half-Sioux), have to do with his decision to enter the race is a mystery. Soon enough, we are transported to a Bedouin camp and a whole mess of unremarkable intrigue and agendas, buried in Islamic stereotyes that some critics have called out-and-out racist. By this time, the story is so flimsy anyway that the film’s only saving grace is the scenery: undulating sand banks, endless desert sunsets and an exhilerating tsunami of a sandstorm that chases the riders within an inch of their lives.
The flimsiness of the film, it would seem, has its roots in the flimsiness of Hopkins’s claim to fame. The “true” story of his life and adventures comes from his memoirs, written in the 1940s. A pair of equestrian enthusiasts, however, made it their task to discredit his tall tales with the aid of curators, journalists, historians and other experts in a recently published book, “Hidalgo and Other Stories by Frank T. Hopkins.” Basha and Cuchullaine O’Reilly claim there is no record of Hopkins serving in the U.S. Cavalry, no mention of him as part of Buffalo Bill’s show and, moreover, no such thing as a trans-Arabian “Ocean of Fire” race.
So, we have Disney back in its (un-animated) element: corny fiction.

Action / English
136 min.
Now showing

by Kirsten Jerch
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