Hidalgo (2004)

Based on the true, and by that I mean false, life story of Cavalry scout, long-distance horse-racer and tall-tale teller Frank T. Hopkins, Hidalgo is a film I’ve revisited a couple of times and enjoyed, but with a certain level of unease. There’s a fine line between ardently trying to mix together all the elements of classic yarn-spinning and by-the-numbers cliché-mongering, and Joe Johnston’s film stumbles along that line like a drunken cowpoke. Entertaining enough to be a decent time-out movie, and yet saddled with a script that’s all too obviously the offspring a hundred screenwriting workshops, Hidalgo displays a lot of what’s technically fine in contemporary attempts to approximate classic adventuring and so much of what’s wrong with the results.

Not that anyone would pretend Johnston is a great filmmaker, or indeed anything but a craftsman, but he’s got a way with keeping his films zippy and transparent that made him an appropriate heir to the likes of Robert Stephenson and Richard Fleischer as a Disney stable director. Hidalgo tells a hell of a tale with as many diversions and inventions as necessary to jazz things up, and manages to be at least better than Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet, a rambling mess that similarly synthesised a picaresque swashbuckler out of a long-distance horse race. Hidalgo’s story takes in an awesome breadth of cultural tropes, from the Indian Wars and the massacre of Wounded Knee to Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley to an Arabic Middle East on the cusp of uneasy entrance into the modern world, and some pitch-perfect casting – like J.K. Simmons as Bill, and Omar Sharif as Sheikh of Sheikhs Riyadh, who is part-patron, part-foil for Hopkins – promises a glorious exploration of a bygone age.

Frank, reduced to alcoholism after witnessing Wounded Knee and gnawn at by his own cross-cultural background, is working as one of Bill’s Wild West troupe, when he is challenged by Riyadh to come and compete in the “Ocean of Fire” race around the Arabian Peninsula and across Iraq (that’s what it’s called in the film, but not back then). Disdained by princes and warriors he competes against and manipulated by the brilliant, beautiful, but amoral Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard), Frank soon finds himself embroiled in her plot to win the race by paying the Sheikh’s disreputable bandit nephew Katib (Silas Carson) to steal the Sheikh’s champion steed Al-Hattal, so she can mate her mare to that horse’s mighty line. Such a subplot makes literal the storyline’s contrast of old-world ideals of purity as imbuing instant nobility, versus the mutt breeding of Americans and Hidalgo himself, Hopkins’ Mustang mount.

Hidalgo’s the sort of confused contemporary product that tries to leaven cornball adventure by encompassing historical atrocities and pseudo-pertinent observations on the clash of American and Middle Eastern mores, back when Americans were still embarrassed about themselves, and the world was defined by clearly delineated castes. But such observations are only essayed in the broadest of Disney-fied strokes, with such silly pulp-orientalist tropes as our hero’s being threatened with castration for being caught with the Sheikh’s spirited, rebellious daughter (is there any other kind?) Jazita (Zuleikha Robinson). Frank and Jazita’s romance is numbingly non-committal, and they don’t do anything actually romantic because that would violate: a) the fragile veneer of cultural respectfulness; b) the characterisation of Jazita as frustrated proto-feminist; c) the sexlessness of shy ole cow-hand Hopkins; and d) the hot man-on-horse affair that’s the real story. And of course Hopkins will wear down the outright contempt with which he’s treated by his fellow competitors and everyone will learn a lesson about worthiness and will. It’s enough to make you long for the days in movies when people just shot each other and the winner got the girl.

The narrative’s wobbly grasp on what makes adventure yarns actually, compulsively entertaining – the sense that all the world’s a stage for anyone willing to break rules, steal kisses, and bust heads – is especially frustrating because so many potent elements are on hand. Hidalgo is all but stolen by Lombard’s snake-in-silk performance as Lady Davenport, a prodigy of Imperial prerogative who's deeply versed in the ways of other cultures but for whom they only represent fine things to be exploited. But the possibility of Frank boffing the bad girl is even more remote than getting anywhere with the Islamic princess. Viggo Mortensen’s temporary ascension to matinee stardom thanks to his excellent heroism in The Lord of the Rings series was never bound to appeal to that actor’s wayward sensibilities, and his characterisation as Frank is taciturn to the point of self-effacement. His Hopkins has to go through the usual boring process of coming to terms with his identity, cueing some standard Indian mystic jive to inspire him back onto his feet in time to win the race (the finish line is supposed to be in Damascus, but somehow that’s been relocated to beside the ocean). Mortensen’s still very good, sporting a low-key humour and a mixture of determination and bewildered, makeshift wit, but he never quite gets a chance to focus his performance. Sharif, who’s been doing this sort of things since before most of the target audience’s parents were born, is entertaining, although he gets very little to do that couldn’t have been tossed off by a much lesser screen personage.

The visuals, with a glittering, acetone-etched look that seems both antique and hyper-vivid, are beautiful, the physical detail impeccable, but that style of beauty is part of the problem, as everything seems burnished over by digital and cinematographic legerdemain that transforms the grandest landscape into a playground. You never quite sense the arduousness of the earth and the heat of the sun in the way you do in, say, Lawrence of Arabia (which the film inevitably quotes at several points), or that memorable desert scene in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. The feeling that everything’s been processed into the ground hangs about it like the stink of a dead camel as CGI windstorms sweep the landscape and hideously unfair fake leopards attack. Somehow I never get the feeling Cecil B. DeMille would have advertised a film with promises of man fighting savage beasts painted in pixel by pixel. The major action scenes lack detail, and when Frank battles Katib’s guards whilst fleeing along the rooftops of an Arab city, the Errol Flynn-esque zest of the moment is spoiled by obvious back-projection.

The flat screenplay, by John Fusco, with its by-rote conflicts and very ordinary dialogue, can’t build anything of substance out of such a vast surplus of material. Major antagonists are introduced far too late with little impact, and the recourse to the kidnapping and horse-stealing action subplot suggests he realised that hours of watching a guy on a horse might be rather dull unless it was played as Hemingway-esque psycho-primal drama, a bit beyond the reflexes of this kind of fare. All that said, Hidalgo still works up a certain zest, because all the money and polish expended brought together a good cast, production values that aren’t, at least, thrown away in a blizzard of ludicrous edits, and yes, there's enough of a good story there to keep it driving along. Peter Mensah, as Jazita’s loyal bodyguard Jafar, enlivens the film with excellent but brief swashbuckling, and the race’s conclusion is excellently staged, finally hitting exactly the right note of improbable endurance. The whole project nonetheless had a potential that eluded the filmmakers’ grasp.

Popular posts from this blog

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

150 Greatest Action-Adventure Films

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)