Any contemporary, big-budget movie which begins with the massacre of American Indians at Wounded Knee and, two hours later, winds its way around to both a heartfelt plea for peaceful American-Arab relations and an ecological celebration of the mustang (the horse, not the car), has to be something pretty special.
Hidalgo was the most delightful surprise of its year. This shamelessly fanciful version of the life of Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) – who also secretly goes by his American Indian name of Blue Child – begins as a bleak anti-Western but rapidly shifts locale to the Arabian desert, where Frank and his magnificent horse, Hidalgo, compete in a gruelling race.
There is scarcely a melodramatic device in existence which this film does not gleefully plunder. Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), for instance, has a feisty, proto-feminist daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson). She longs to ride horses and be free – and in one incredibly sexy moment, she even de-veils her face for Frank.
There is a large range of villains on display, from the old-fashioned raping-marauding type to Lady Davenport (Louise Lombard), a British aristocrat who offers her prim body to Frank as a lure when money no longer suffices. Everyone, of course, wants to win the race, and will do anything to secure that victory.
But this is, after all, the tale of a man and his horse – and in that field, it beats Seabiscuit (2003) by a mile. Mortensen is superb at conveying manly heroics, laconic humour and troubled sensitivity. Hidalgo does not make much noise, but his well-edited looks and turns cue us to many incoming scenes of comedy, menace or romance. And when this horse gets hurt, you really feel it.
Hidalgo comes with a rare, full-screen credit for both director and writer: "A Joe Johnston/John Fusco Film". Johnston has turned in highly professional work on projects including The Rocketeer (1991) and October Sky (1999), but nothing in his filmography to date matches the epic sweep, and the masterful control of so many diverse elements, that are evident here.
This is a film that, for a change, makes one appreciate the ways and means of the Hollywood blockbuster. With its kaleidoscope of moods, its perfectly judged rhythm and build-up, its elaborate set-pieces, and its ability to forge resolutions that are satisfying on every level, Hidalgo reminds us what was once so exciting in the work of a Spielberg or Lucas when they were really trying to impress.
What is most special about this film however, clearly derives from Fusco. He is one of the few American screenwriters who has been able to stamp his distinctive personality on a wide range of films, from the underrated blues music fantasy Crossroads (1986) to the outstanding animation Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002).
Fusco's politics are, by commercial Hollywood standards, quite progressive. His feeling for the culture and history of American Indian tribes is impeccable. More generally, he has a fine way of adopting and then twisting ideological stereotypes of every kind – racial, national, sexual.
Best of all, he knows how to wrap his message not in a detachable sermon but an involving, completely persuasive action-plot.
© Adrian Martin March 2004