By Phil Hall | March 7, 2004

“Hidalgo” is a big, dumb, old-fashioned epic supposedly based on the life of Frank T. Hopkins, a performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the late 1890s whose claim to fame was being the first American to enter and win a major pan-Arabian horse race. Imagine Seabiscuit shoehorned into “Lawrence of Arabia” as a vehicle for Roy Rogers and Trigger and you’ll have an idea what this cumbersome mess is all about.
The title refers to Hopkins’ horse, a wild mustang who was tamed for long-distance endurance riding. The horse’s mixed breed brings sneers to the thoroughbred enthusiasts who believe it has no place in a champion race. Mixed breeding is also found in Hidalgo’s saddle: Hopkins was half-white and half-Indian and was traumatized into alcoholism by witnessing the massacre of Sioux at Wounded Knee by American soldiers. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed Viggo Mortensen is cast as Hopkins, and while it is painfully obvious in his appearance that does not have a trace of Native American blood in his system, he nonetheless compensates for the miscasting by giving a performance so wooden that he could be mistaken for a cigar store Indian.

Anyone looking for a positive depiction of Arab culture has come to the wrong movie. This film is packed with the nastiest Arabs this side of CNN’s coverage of the occupation of Iraq. Everything from the mistreatment of women to the mistreatment of animals to various indignities to humans (including slave auctions and the threat of castration) is trotted out. Omar Sharif turns up as a sheikh who alternates wildly between self-indulgence and self-denigration — the ultimate Western view of reckless and foolish Arab aristocracy. The only stereotype missing is a large man in a loincloth and turban running about with a raised sword yelling “Hassan chop!”

“Hidalgo” also contains some of the crummiest CGI effects ever devised (wait until you see the leopards attacking a horse and rider), clunky artsy cinematography (how many times do we need to see man and horse framed in silhouette against the sun?) and even a rip-off “Raiders of the Lost Ark” action sequence involving the rescue of a sheikh’s abducted daughter.

Does “Hildago” have anything to recommend? Except for Malcolm McDowell’s five minute performance as a twit Brit nobleman who entertains Hopkins on a trans-Atlantic cruise with a glass of gin, the answer is no. “Hidalgo” is nothing more than a big old chunk of horse poop.
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