It's a funny thing about horse movies. Sometimes you know exactly what you'll get just by looking at the title. Everyone knew what Seabiscuit was going to be about. The same thing went for The Black Stallion and The Red Pony. But I'd wager that, going in, anyone who hadn't seen a preview had no idea that horses were at the center of Casey's Shadow or Phar Lap. And it's also a pretty sure bet that not many viewers will be going in to see Hidalgo knowing that it's the name of a horse.
Actually, while the film does put a lot of attention on the smart and spunky little mustang that won races galore in the waning days of the Wild West and competed in the treacherous Middle Eastern desert race that's at the core of the film's story, it's much more about the stalwart man who was riding him. But there probably wasn't much call for a film titled Frank.
That would be Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), ace rider, horrified eyewitness to the (off-screen) massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, member of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show -- and, it's revealed, half-Indian himself. Frank, much like Tom Cruise's Nathan Algren in The Last Samurai, is a lost and grief-stricken man who needs some change.
So when Cody continuously brags to whoever will listen that Hidalgo has never lost a long-distance race, word travels as far as the land where Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) rules. The sheikh takes such umbrage at this bragging that he invites Frank and Hidalgo to enter his special 3,000-mile race across the desert (for a very large cash prize). Horse and rider, both admittedly a little long in the tooth, board a steamship and head to the hot sands.
It's a small but juicy role for Sharif, who's introduced in a Sergio Leone-style extreme close-up and soon revealed to be man with plenty of his own problems. It's not just that he owns Al-Hattal, a specimen of equine perfection, and there's some upstart cowboy who says his horse is better -- it's that the sheikh has lost five sons. Now he has only his daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson). Naturally, she's even feistier than Hidalgo, and she wants to ride in the race -- which, naturally, is forbidden.
There are many other rules that go into effect once a rifle shot signals the start of the 100-horse race. There's "desert law," which says people in the race must always tell the truth; there's "Western justice" to complement that; there's the understanding that if a horse falls or dies, the rider must be left there; and there's some relief in the rule that the contestants must ride each day till sunset, then start again at dawn.
Food and water? There's plenty of it out there -- if you know where to find it. Then again, Frank, the first foreigner ever to compete in this annual race, is a fish out of water in a place where there doesn't seem to be any water. And he's not alone. This is tough going. The race soon turns into a trek, then a walk, then -- after most of the racers have fallen or died or given up -- it becomes a droop across the dunes.
Both Sharif and Mortensen offer excellent performances. Sharif does it with twinkles of the eye and concern on his face. Mortensen stands up to the test of being the strong and silent type, as well as adding some smolder to his countenance while staying a perfect gentleman (unless, of course, someone threatens his horse).
Too bad the film is also stuffed with unnecessary padding. There's comic relief with a loud and talkative assistant who's assigned to Frank, there's family trouble back at the starting gate between the sheikh and his devious nephew, and more family trouble in that another contestant will get the sheikh's daughter as a bride if he wins. There are two very hokey special effects sequences, one of a sandstorm that was done much better in The Mummy, and one of a locust swarm. Neither adds anything to the story.
There are no problems, however, with the gunplay and swordplay or the oddball attack by predatory cats. Though there are many violent scenes, the real carnage is done off-camera. And the non-effects photography showing the vastness of the desert is breathtaking.
The unlikely and rather ridiculous climax narrows the race down to three horses and riders -- obviously totally exhausted --physically and emotionally -- but they come barreling toward the finish line like they're sprinters. It's absurd but exciting.
And a metaphor for Hidalgo's charm. In all honesty, Hidalgo has too much going on for one film, too many side stories that don't allow the director to keep a strong grip. But it's sure never boring.