"Perhaps you have never heard of the great horse race of the Bedouin, held annually for a thousand years," says the arrogant factotum Aziz, oozing disdain. "It is known as" (pause for effect) "the Ocean of Fire."
Given that the year is 1890, it's likely that Frank Hopkins, the Western cowboy being spoken to, has never heard of the Bedouin, let alone this daunting 3,000-mile, 68-day endurance test across the trackless wastes of Arabia.
He doesn't know that the event, sponsored by the all-powerful Sheikh of Sheikhs, a ruler whose word is law over more sand than even David Geffen commands, is one in which "men go mad" or, if it is Allah's judgment, get suffocated by sandstorms, swarmed by locust clouds or, always a favorite, roasted alive. He doesn't know any of this, but he will and, if we choose to give in to "Hidalgo's" old-fashioned charms, so will we.
Experts apparently differ on whether Hopkins' exploits did or did not happen, but the question is irrelevant. The film, directed by Joe Johnston from John Fusco's script, owes a lot more to Saturday matinees and pulp-fiction heroes than any kind of truth. It's a simple-minded but good-hearted Boys' Own Adventure and, in Viggo Mortensen, it's got a star who is especially suited to the material.
While he makes use of the horse-riding skills he honed in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the actor's Frank Hopkins is not in the mold of the Mortensen the world stood in awe of as the heroic and royal Aragorn.
Rather we see the just-folks side of Viggo, the genial and unaffected tree-hugger whose earnestness happens to blend extremely well with rugged good looks. Hopkins is an "ingenuous and charming" kind of guy, as another character aptly calls him. Only one thing gets the man riled up, and that's people who talk trash about his horse, Hidalgo.
Disparaging words are often heard because Hidalgo is not a thoroughbred with bloodlines stretching to the dawn of time but a plucky mustang, albeit one that's never lost a domestic endurance race. Hopkins, with a Native American mother, has mixed-blood issues himself, which is why his people call him Far Rider, as in "someone who rides far from himself." That's like, so profound.
Disheartened (and who wouldn't be?) after delivering the Army orders that led directly to the celebrated 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, Hopkins turns up, exactly like Tom Cruise's character in "The Last Samurai," drunk and disorderly in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Who would have guessed that Mr. Bill's enterprise was the destination of choice for disaffected romantic drinkers too sensitive for the world?
It is here that the Sheikh's man Aziz (Adam Alexi-Malle) delivers the kind of haughty challenge to compete against the world's best endurance riders that even an inebriated cowboy can't ignore. Hopkins goes off to Arabia not (god forbid) for the $100,000 purse, but to prove, both for his horse and for himself, that bloodlines aren't the only things that matter.
Before he can do that, Hopkins has to spend quality time with the Sheikh (the always charming Omar Sharif), the Sheikh's comely daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), the mysterious Lady Anne (Louise Lombard), who's lived among the Bedouin since she was but a child, and enough minor characters to stock a road-show company of the Arabian Nights.
Nothing in "Hidalgo," from its pounding hoofbeats to its racing pulses, is anything like a surprise; almost complete predictability is in fact part of this film's appeal. A little trimming, however, wouldn't have hurt: "Hidalgo's" overabundance of plot points and diversions lacks the substance to sustain its 2-hour, 16-minute length.
With strong production credits (cinematographer Shelly Johnson, "Black Stallion" editor Robert Dalva, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland) "Hidalgo" also — and this is a good thing as well — bears a family resemblance to Johnston's last and best film, "October Sky." Hokey though it is, with a horse-hugger ending thrown in to boot, "Hidalgo" has a sweet-natured appeal that welcomes sentiment without overdoing it.
The film also has an excellent equine foil for Mortensen in a close-up horse named TJ, an animal with personality who gives Hopkins the fish-eye whenever the cowboy steps out of bounds. Mortensen liked working with TJ so much he bought the horse when filming was over. Now that's the kind of Hollywood ending it's easy to appreciate.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for adventure violence and mild innuendo
Times guidelines: "Raiders of the Lost Ark"-type violence; jokes about castration
Viggo Mortensen... Frank Hopkins
Zuleikha Robinson ... Jazira
Omar Sharif ... Sheikh Riyadh
Louise Lombard ... Lady Anne Davenport
Adam Alexi-Malle ... Aziz
Released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Joe Johnston. Producer Casey Silver. Executive producer Don Zepfel. Screenplay John Fusco. Cinematographer Shelly Johnson. Editor Robert Dalva. Costumes Jeffrey Kurland. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Barry Robison. Art director Kevin Constant. Set decorator Garrett Lewis.
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes.