Director: Joe Johnston
Writer: John Fusco
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson
What’s worse than a bad movie? A pretentious bad movie with a broken Aesop. Horse movies do have a tendency to be bad in the first place, but there’s no excuse for this. Celebrating a white man’s Lakota heritage does not give the film free license to depict derogatory portrayals of Bedouin or declare an American mustang superior to Arabian horses in an event for which they’ve been bred for centuries. It reeks of thinly-veiled ethnocentrism.
“Based on a true story”?
Go jump in a lake.
After Aragorn finishes a snowy endurance race on a paint horse named Hidalgo, dialogue reveals that Aragorn’s last name is Hopkins. The sore loser berates him about his horse.
Loser: Mustangs don’t belong in races with thoroughbreds.
The movie is about three minutes in, and already it doesn’t know what it’s talking about. The race just shown, if implications are to be taken at face value, was a long-distance endurance race. It was not a flat race. Thoroughbreds are the breed best known for flat races, not endurance races, which are much longer and more arduous. So yes, mustangs don’t belong in races with thoroughbreds—because thoroughbreds belong in flat races. The question is, what were you and your thoroughbred doing in an endurance race, mister? Thoroughbreds are sprinters, not marathon runners.
The narrative then proceeds to imply that Hopkins is responsible for delivering a message that called for the instigation of the battle at Wounded Knee, providing him with enough angst to become an alcoholic and join a wild west show so that he can wallow in his self-loathing.
Hopkins: I’m getting the **** out of Cleveland.
Annie: Good, ‘cause we’re in Boston.
Okay, that was funny.
On the train ride to the next stop, we learned that mustangs are being rounded up to be killed by the government (because the government is evil and hates all symbols of freedom). It’s implied again that thoroughbreds are viewed as the best breed of horse.
Bill: Tell my dear friend Eagle Horn that the mustang breed has known its day and served its purpose. If my chief wishes a fine horse, I will give to him a thoroughbred steed of his chosen color.
- What is an Oglala chief going to do with a thoroughbred? Prance around? Thoroughbreds have long legs and look regal, but they’re not hardy little things like mustangs. They have tiny hooves. They’re not ideal as work horses or for traveling great distances or any of the practical uses Eagle Horn might intend for a horse.
- “Of his chosen color”? Real equestrians don’t care about color (except for paint fans, who, come to think of it, are the target audience). A palomino or a blue roan can be nice to look at, but that’s far from the primary concern when in the market for a new horse. A good horse is sound, intelligent, cooperative, and trusting, with good confirmation and healthy hooves. Color is an afterthought. Perhaps in this portrayal Buffalo Bill is supposed to be ignorant about horses, but in this era knowledge of horse basics would be more prevalent than it is now.
Clearly, the movie wants to set up a prevailing prejudice against mustangs in favor of thoroughbreds so that mustangs can be the underdogs. However, just supposing the white folks all have some irrational disdain for the “native” horses (even though cowboys found plenty of use for them), why would they be touting Thoroughbreds as the best breed of all time? There is no universal best breed—only certain breeds that are well-equipped for certain tasks. During the Civil War, Americans were using Morgans, Arabians, and gaited breeds such as the Tennessee Walker and American Saddlebred. It makes more sense to recommend one of these as an alternative.
Additional note: Hopkins is not a reliable translator.
At the next wild west show, Hidalgo canters out into the arena without his rider, and Hopkins struggles to get the thousand-pound animal to cooperate. This might be intended as comedic relief. For anyone who has experienced a similar situation, it is not.
When word reaches Arabia that Hidalgo is being advertised as the greatest living endurance horse, a wealthy sheikh sends Aziz to talk with Buffalo Bill about this inaccuracy. They tell him to discontinue using the phrase unless Hopkins and Hidalgo prove themselves in an endurance race across the Arabian desert. With funding from his coworkers who put too much faith in him, Hopkins accepts the challenge. So… how is Hopkins planning to protect Hidalgo from the strong Arabian sun? Does he have any sunscreen? All those white markings put a lot of sensitive pink skin at risk.
On the boat overseas, some idiots mess with the horse, so Hopkins punches them out. Good job trying to be responsible. Now try not being drunk half the time.
After the brawl, Hopkins is introduced to Lady Anne Davenport. Considering the customs of the era, you’d think a cowboy would know better than to shake a lady’s hand like that, but maybe he’s still drunk/hungover/out of his wits in one way or another. It turns out that one of the horses that will be competing against Hidalgo is owned by this Lady Anne. More talk of bloodlines. The elitism displayed is not painful so much for its own sake as because it’s so forced for the purpose of setting up a straw man. There have to be some snobby naysayers so that the American underdog can trample established precedent and choke you with inspiration.
After arriving at their destination, Aziz accompanies Hopkins as they ride along to wherever and on the way pass by “a slave market”. This should be interesting. How will Mister American Freedom handle the— Oh. We’re fading out of that shot now. That’s it.
The wealthy sheikh has a beautiful daughter (Can you see where this is going?) who likes to ride horses, which is not allowed because of… some unspecified reason. This may or may not be accurate. Considering that traditional Bedouin women have more freedom than those in sedentary lives, it may well be that this was made this up for the sole purpose of a cheap characterization device. Look how fierce is this woman. Cheer for her and her faux struggle against The Man. Pay no attention to the actual, relevant issues behind the curtain.
More dialogue implies that Hidalgo is still a stallion. As in, not a gelding. That’s… unusual. It’s not implausible, but the factoid’s inclusion is just another excuse for a character to express concern for pure bloodlines.
A goatherder is punished by being assigned to the American. He rambles about how this will be a dangerous ride. The movie keeps ruminating on things it has already said.
When Hopkins meets the sheikh, there’s a gag about both Arabs and cowboys preferring strong coffee, which suggests that someone around here did do some research, so— Hold on, what’s the sheikh’s daughter doing here? She wouldn’t be allowed in this part of the tent while a man is visiting. Neither would a responsible man speak to a male stranger about a female relative. You people did the research; you ought to know better than this.
Sheikh: On cold nights, my wives sleep in the stable tents so that Al-Hattal is comfortable and appeased.
…Stable tents? No. There are no “stable tents”. Horses are tied to stakes in the ground. Sometimes, the Bedouin bring their horses into their tents to sleep alongside them, but that is not equivalent to you sleeping in the barn. That is equivalent to you bringing your horse into your bedroom.
Also, they’re making a big deal over this Arabian stallion. This is inaccurate. Bedouin trace bloodlines through the mares, not the stallions, and mares are the more valuable. Plus, about every time the special purebred stallion is shown, he’s rearing or misbehaving, perpetuating negative stereotypes of Arabians as unruly, not to mention it makes the Bedouin look like they don’t know how to handle a horse. In contrast, take a look at some actual Bedouin horsemanship.
The sheikh is very impressed with Hopkins’ gun, even though he looks rich enough that he could just buy his own. Whatever the excuse, the weapon is a reason for the indigenous native to admire the Mighty Whitey. It doesn’t get any better from here.
Time for a break from the serious. Let’s see something funny. Hopkins tries to instruct a boy to get water for his horse. Since they don’t share a common language, he points to the boy, gives him a bucket, and points to the horse. Having no idea how to put a horse into a bucket, much less milk a stallion, the boy drops the bucket and takes off running.
Then communication-impaired Hopkins walks over to have an uneventful chat with Lady Anne and ties his horse to a— Did he just tie his horse by the reins? Wait, no, false alarm. He didn’t even make a knot. Better hope that horse has been trained to ground tie.
When he calls her ma’am, she corrects him, saying, “Anne will do.” His response? “Yes, ma’am.” Ha.
Time to go back to the serious. Everyone and their horses gather at the starting line and express their doubts that Hopkins will survive, in case it hasn’t been hammered in enough that Hidalgo is the underdog (with good reason). After something like a tense buildup, the race begins. This is when the movie picks up in energy and visual interest what it lacks in realism and writing. The soundtrack is nothing special, but it does its job as generic action music. If you were waiting for the part where you get to watch a bunch of horses run across the screen, here you go. Most effective is the momentary shot that shows a woman grabbing a boy out of the way just before the starting gun fires.
After that, things settle down. The filmmakers realize that actual endurance rides are not interesting to watch for the most part, so the slowing of pace is realistic, but this now poses a problem for the entertainment factor. How to solve that? Here’s an idea: kill off one of the horses.
A competitor tells Hopkins not to aid another competitor who has just euthanized his injured horse. This being a fictional race, that’s hard to verify, but it sure sounds contrary to the traditional Bedouin values of hospitality and generosity.
Hopkins arrives at an oasis and spots a rabbit, at which he raises his pistol to shoot, but then a falcon swoops in and catches it for its master. It’s not unusual for a Bedouin to be a falconer. Here again the writing suggests that there was some knowledge of the Bedouin involved in the making of this movie. How did they know about the coffee and falcons but not anything else?
Wow. That scorpion looks fake.
A nice guy reminds Hopkins that he still has a chance to turn back and save his skin. Maybe this is meant to come off as belligerent, but he’s expressing earnest concern for the survival of a man who has limited knowledge of a dangerous place.
Oh. Never mind. The script realizes that his dialogue is not having the desired effect and has the ex-nice guy makes a shady deal. That’s not very Bedouin of you, sir. What are you so concerned over, anyway? He has no reason to be worried—unless, unbeknownst to the audience, he has the psychic ability to sense the protagonist of the movie.
At the next water hole, a man does what he was paid to do by ex-nice guy shady-deal-maker: he lies to Hopkins that the well here is dry, but Hopkins is no fool. Like a clever hero, he deduces that the well is—
Hold on. That man is British. A British soldier, in Arabia, prior to World War I.
Because after all, the movie would be incomplete without a bad guy with an English accent.
Hey look. Hidalgo does ground tie. Also, as revealed when Hopkins makes a grab for the water, he’s also very good at running over people without actually trampling them. The water problem is solved without much difficulty. With that action scene over, there’s only a few seconds of breathing room before a sandstorm appears. They hide from it in a random abandoned building.
After some shots of the desert accompanied by appropriate music, H-team reaches the half-way camp. Lady Anne, Daddy Sheikh, and Beautiful Daughter are there, plus the goat man. Daddy Sheikh reads a dime novel about Buffalo Bill. His evil nephew comes along to ask for a horse, and you can tell he’s evil because he has a well-kept devil beard. Also, he takes a dig at the sheikh’s manhood. Boo. The sheikh has a comeback referring to the fact that the evil nephew has no wives, which is… unusual… and impractical, unless he’s doing all the tent chores himself. Way to go for traversing traditional gender boundaries? Somehow, gender equality doesn’t seem to be the intended message here.
In the next scene, the sheikh’s beautiful daughter, Jazira, sneaks into Hopkin’s tent while he is alone after dark. That’s a gutsy move, to say the least. She gives him advice on how to survive in the desert, hoping that he will win, because if the prince (that’s ex-nice guy shady-deal-maker) wins the race on Al-Hattal, she will have to marry him. So her proactive solution to this problem is to help someone else win the race.
- Why she picks Hopkins of all people is questionable. She should be helping someone likely to win, not the underdog. Then again, maybe she too can sense the identity of the protagonist.
- Has Evil Nephew already revoked his right to her? The prince can’t marry this woman without her first cousin’s permission.
- Her daring move is unnecessary. She’s not powerless here. She has the right to express her opinion and get what she wants. Unlike their sedentary sisters, many Bedouin marry for love.
Then there’s this exchange.
Jazira: How did you tame him?
Hopkins: I didn’t.
Cut the pretense. You trained that horse to ground tie.
Hopkins: Why do you wear that?
Jazira: Verily, you do not know our world.
One can assume he was asking about the veil. In actuality, Bedouin women are not required to cover their faces. It’s a good idea, due to the environment (sand and wind are a painful combination), but she has nothing to be ashamed of if she leaves her nose visible. She might be referring to the real reasons that would make covering her face a good idea, but… it’s a calm night and no sand is blowing.
A few lines later, Jazira refers to Hopkins as a “white man”.
- Her skin is not darker than his.
- In general, Arabs consider themselves white.
A slave finds Jazira in Hopkins’ tent, and due to happenstance, the pose they’re found in looks… suspicious, to say the least. Daddy brings his daughter home and they have an angry discussion that comes around to the topic of the prince and her marriage.
Sheikh: (translated) You are not yet his property.
Does somebody think they actually talk like that?
Jazira: (translated) The women of the western tribes no longer wear the veil.
And you don’t have to either. Stop acting as if you have no control over your life.
Some men enter the tent with Hopkins, who is in handcuffs. Jazira covers her face at their arrival, but she does not cross behind the curtain to the women’s side of the tent.
Jazira: (translated) Let him go.
Sheikh: (translated) How dare you give orders to a man in my tent.
No, you read that line wrong. It’s “How dare you remain in the sitting place while there are male guests present.” The sheikh proceeds to relay the information to Hopkins that for their perceived lewdness, she will be flogged and he will be castrated. Hopkins prevents this not by convincing him of their innocence, but by catching his attention with a quote from Buffalo Bill. Then some raiders arrive and start shooting up the place, true to form. Lady Anne has a snarky method of reassuring her maid that she’s not in danger.
Lady Anne: Tribal war games are their national sport, Mary. It’s none of our affair.
She’s very confident about this. You’re not supposed to like her. The movie wants to make sure she’s so politically incorrect that it makes this story look good in comparison, but it’s not working so well.
The sheikh is shown to be inept with a pistol. Hopkins has to step in and show him how it’s done. We’re back to the old clichés again.
Jazira gets kidnapped by raiders, although she does fight to admirable degree. No pathetic easy surrender for her. Kudos. The bad news is that she’s been taken by very dishonorable men who are willing to break Bedouin law (which allows blood vengeance but is fiercely protective of women).
The sheikh finds that his family’s breeding book is also missing. Hopkins suggests that they interrogate Aziz. When the sheikh questions him, his answers are useless. It’s looking like he’s going to be put to the sword, but Hopkins interrupts to try a different interrogation style, which turns out to be more effective—because of course the American knows best.
The kidnappers want Al-Hattal in exchange for Jazira’s safe return. The horse, as has been reiterated time and time again, is priceless, so Team Rescue comes up with a zany scheme.
It turns out the man who kidnapped Jazira is… the evil nephew, Katib. He has some stock dialogue about her father being a failure for allowing his feelings to rule him. The evil nephew is touting stoicism and a cold heart as the path to strength and greatness. In other words, the movie is saying that putting emotion aside is evil. Just once, can stoicism be presented as a good thing?
Team Rescue arrives with the horse and trades it for Jazira. Surprise: the horse isn’t Al-Hattal. A chase ensues, which might be fast-paced and tense the first time you watch it, but when you already know what happens (which isn’t hard to guess the first time around) the more interesting thing to note is that there are some Arab men with goggles over their keffiyeh. It’s reminiscent of the Sand People from Star Wars… probably because they were based on the Bedouin. The Sand People, you will recall, are regarded as hostile, primitive, and almost sub-human. The Bedouin don’t have much in the way of good PR in America, do they?
Oh look. Hopkins has finally traded in his cowboy hat for a keffiyeh. Good choice. It will protect his lungs from all the dust.
Back to the action. When Hopkins whistles for his horse, Hidalgo unties himself. There are specific horsemanship knots intended to prevent that. Also the slave gets shot, which is unfortunate. He was a good man. Before that, Hopkins ditches the keffiyeh at some point because he’s too good for practicality.
Hopkins and Jazira escape on Hidalgo. Once they’re away from the danger, Jazira decides she wants Hopkins to see her face, which isn’t a big deal but seems a bit silly.
Jazira: Why do I feel that you truly see me when others do not?
Hopkins utters some cheesy line about how beautiful she is and his horse turns around to look at him like, “Quit fooling around, man. They’re coming after us.” They ride further and get to camp. Everybody’s excited to greet them as they return.
Sheikh: When this race is over, I will pray five times a day.
…which is what Muslims are supposed to do in the first place.
Hopkins tries to make a point to goat man about fighting fate and Lady Anne invites Hopkins over for tea. She wants to bribe him to quit the race. Why does everyone regard this guy as such a serious threat? When he refuses, she puts on some music and tries to seduce him because we wouldn’t want you forgetting that she’s a dirtbag. He is Super Noble McPerfect, so he is not ensnared and bids her a good night. He finds Jazira tending to his horse.
Hopkins: I don’t like the look of them front hooves. That quarter crack is getting worse. Another four hundred miles can put him lame.
Jazira: You must not give up.
This woman has terrible judgment. You should have bet on a different horse, sweetheart. In any case, that’s not a good example of endurance ride ethics. This isn’t a flat race. This isn’t the sport of kings, or the sport of gamblers, or the sport of unscrupulous businessmen. This isn’t about the profit or the reward or winning at any cost, no matter how great. This is about horses and their people. You always put the health of the horse first. Always.
When Hopkins expresses some realistic expectations, Jazira spouts some foolish whiny crap and admonishes him for being willing to “prove them right”. They are right. Hidalgo isn’t designed for a ride like this, and neither man nor horse is experienced with this environment. You can’t win on sheer willpower alone. However, pressured by her guilt trip and Hidalgo’s adherence to routine, Hopkins rejoins the competition the next morning.
Turns out Lady Anne is a shady deal-maker too. She was in league with Katib the whole time. What a cheater. Also Katib calls her “Lady English,” which is a nice touch, considering how “Anne” would sound to a native Arabic-speaker. Hey look, another guy with goggles on his keffiyeh. Is this a thing? Do people do this? It looks awesome, but where are they getting the goggles from?
There hasn’t been any action for a few minutes. Time for a locust swarm. Hopkins is ridiculously nonchalant about bugs trying to crawl onto his face. The locusts black out the screen for a second, but then we see the aftermath. Either Hidalgo reacts to fear by lying down on his side, or Hopkins has trained him to lie down this way even if something scary is happening.
- When something happens that they’re unfamiliar with and don’t understand, horses don’t like to lie down. They prefer to run. Lying down puts their legs out of action, leaving them vulnerable, and it’s only worthy of their consideration under very safe circumstances, when nothing is going on and there’s another horse around to stand guard.
- When horses lie down, they lie down on their bellies with their legs tucked. It is unusual for them to lie down on their sides flat out like a dead thing.
Remembering what Jazira told him, Hopkins eats a locust and feeds one to his horse. Horses are not omnivores. Jazira never specified whether they are safe for a horse’s delicate digestive system.
Meanwhile, another competitor falls into a… a… tar pit? What is that stuff? Quicksand? It looks very watery. More water than sand. This is supposed to be a desert.
His horse takes off without him. It doesn’t get very far, granted, but it doesn’t hang around near the edge of the pit, either. This is hard to believe if you know anything about the famed loyalty of Bedouin horses. Then again, it’s also strange that the horse wasn’t more cautious and didn’t sense the ground becoming more unstable before going forward.
Hopkins lassoes him out of there, of course, because he’s the American hero. Then they have a conversation about God’s will versus human will.
Hopkins: What about your will? What about your horse’s will? Seems to me that’s what will get you across a finish line.
So you’re a hopeless romantic, huh?
If this movie has a central theme, this is it: with enough willpower, any odds can be overcome. The problem is that’s not accounting for everything. It’s not willpower alone that creates accomplishments. Rather, willpower drives an individual to acquire the necessary skills and resources to achieve a goal. Dreaming in your heart is not enough to make things happen. It takes action.
For example, wanting to win the race is not enough for Hopkins to win the race. A man who wants more than anything to win this race would have done everything possible to ensure his success: he should have purchased and trained with an Arabian horse bred specifically for the conditions of this race, learned all he could about surviving in the desert, trained and prepared in Arabia beforehand, worn appropriate attire such as a keffiyeh, not rescued Jazira and instead allowed his horse more time to rest, and not wasted time and energy rescuing this guy in the random watery quicksand when he could have been riding closer to the finish line.
As shown by the movie itself, winning is not his number one priority. He wants to be a hero more than he wants to win. That’s all well and good, but he has accumulated so many disadvantages by now that it doesn’t make remote sense for him to even be in the running. Merely really wanting to can’t change that. What’s more, it’s ironic that the movie keeps pushing this idea when half the time Hopkins exhibits an apathetic attitude.
The conversation ends as if Hopkins has made a better argument. He hits the trail again, but he’s so exhausted that he falls off the horse. After he remounts, he ties himself to the saddle. Bad idea. Never do this at home.
He’s not too exhausted for another action scene, though. Some people attack and it might make sense if you were paying close attention to the plot but hey look, that guy’s shooting a real flaming arrow. Look at it. It’s on fire. Then the attackers on horses gallop forth and chase H-team into a spike pit. Hidalgo is injured. It’s bad. Whether or not Hopkins gets on your nerves, it’s unpleasant to see his horse get hurt.
An Arab with keffiyeh goggles aims a rifle at Hopkins, who is somehow uninjured, but Katib says Lady English says don’t kill him, because bad guys must always be morons. Guess what. Hopkins escapes the spike pit. Not only that, but somehow his injured horse is still rideable.
Lucky for them, the bad guys who were too stupid to just shoot him happen to have a couple of CGI leopards on hand. They don’t act much like real leopards. They’re more like heat-seeking missiles.
As the action continues, a falcon attacks a guy in the face. Whether or not this is supposed to be funny, it is. Somehow Hopkins again does not get shot because Katib decides there needs to be a melee scene. Thanks to this and Hopkins’ unwillingness to be another save-the-villain type, Katib falls victim to one of his own traps. Action scene over.
H-team heads on. When Hidalgo collapses, maybe from exhaustion and maybe from that giant wound on his shoulder, Hopkins almost gives up but then hallucinates, sings a song, and makes it better. His singing isn’t bad, but no amount of singing will heal your horse and restore his stamina… unless you have spontaneous plot powers.
When the prince on Al-Hattal comes along to taunt him, we get this exchange.
Prince: You will not defeat me. I am born of the great tribe. People of the horse.
Hopkins: So am I.
That’s a decent piece of dialogue there, even a powerful one if you’re buying into the ludicrous story.
When it gets down to the wire, the three horses in the lead are all very close at a flat out gallop, which is an acceptable use of artistic license. Despite all the setbacks, delays, and his American-bred horse, Hopkins [not a spoiler] wins the race. Surprise. Then H-team comes to a stop in the— Is that the sea? What the…? It’s stated multiple times in the movie that the end of the race is in Damascus. Damascus does not have a shoreline.
After the nonsense in Arabia, Hopkins returns to America without so much as kissing the pretty lady (so at least this movie doesn’t adhere to every cliché) and there he rescues the mustangs from their impending death by purchasing every last one with the winner’s purse. Then he sets them all free, including Hidalgo. The music feels that this is very inspiring. The guy no longer has a horse. His best friend abandoned him. Hurrah.
The following text displays on screen at the end:
Frank T. Hopkins was reputed to have won more than 400 long-distance races, competing well into his sixties.
The Bedouin are represented as evil backstabbers, repressed women, and bumbling old fools inept in horsemanship. The Brits and Americans of European descent are no good either. Hopkins, who for all intents and purposes looks like a white guy, only redeems himself by being half-Lakota and embracing that half of his heritage. Prejudice against American Indians is wrong, but it’s not any less wrong to glorify them as the flawless master race while turning that exact same prejudice against the Bedouin tribes.
Supposing you can ignore the painful sight of a derogatory, stereotypical, and inaccurate portrayal of a fascinating people and their elegant companions, is there still a good story somewhere underneath? Don’t be absurd.
In terms of structure, it’s difficult to compose a narrative out of an endurance race. They can be rewarding to compete in, but they’re not interesting for spectators. They’re monotonous by design. The film tries to capitalize on the stunning desert scenery, but that can only go on for so long, so it flounders about in search of a plot.
Plot points, to use a generous term, come in the form of desert hazards and generic Western elements: a swarm of locusts, a sandstorm, a conflict over water, a kidnapping/rescue, a shootout, an exotic woman to fulfill the Indian Princess trope and whine as if her culture is a lot more oppressive than it actually is… The uniting threads of the story line revolve around purebred prejudice, Jazira’s contrived marriage situation that she could have solved herself, and Hopkins’ implied identity crisis, but there is no overarching plot. The whole frustrating thing is a weak conglomeration of unconnected action scenes sprinkled with believe-in-yourself encouragement and a sentimental view of the American Mustang as the world’s best breed. A mustang beats the Arabs at their own game. It’s preposterous. There’s no ignoring that.