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.
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
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
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,