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The stirring adventure of Hidalgo takes us from the dying days of the "wild" west to the burning sands of the Middle East, as horseman extraordinaire Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) shows his mettle and his good old-fashioned American gumption. Along the way, he reconnects with his Native American heritage and proves that the wild Mustang horse is as good as any thoroughbred. It's all true, give or take a lie or two.

Or twenty.

Loosely adapted from Hopkins' own memoirs, which in turn are already accused of having been loosely adapted from his imagination, the movie has a certain charm. If you don't mind that it's likely all fiction, it's pretty satisfying.

And why shouldn't Hopkins have mythologized himself? He claimed to have rubbed elbows with Buffalo Bill (the always great J.K. Simmons) and Annie Oakley (a perfectly cast Elizabeth Berridge), two 19th century heroes who did more than their fair share of exaggerating their histories? The script by John Fusco even nods at such storytelling, as Hopkins has to play Scheherezade to an intrigued Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), spilling intimate details of his non-existent time with Wild Bill Hickock.

Director Joe Johnston never quite pushes the film into a clear wink and nod at the audience, but he comes close. Just as he did with The Rocketeer, Johnston finds the light moments in scenes without making them overtly comedic. Instead of presenting an historical drama, Johnston has put together an old-fashioned western with a few modern touches. Take away the slight feminist message and grave respect for native ways, and Tom Mix could step out of the silents to star in this. For there is no doubt that Hidalgo himself is a wonder horse.

If not for the mustang, in fact, you would have to take this movie seriously, and it wouldn't work nearly as well. Johnston uses Hidalgo to punctuate many scenes in which Hopkins seems to get too full of himself, turning around and almost rolling his huge horse eyes. The horse knows when a scene is too full of his own droppings.

In fact, many scenes are. Most of the characters seem more types than actual human beings. Hopkins is even drawn into the grueling (and, by the way, historically non-existent) race, "The Ocean of Fire," by a man clearly cast only because Peter Lorre was busy being dead. That actor, Victor Talmadge, does a spot-on Lorre, though. Malcolm McDowell shows up uncredited to play a dotty old English lord. No doubt he had fun, but at this point, it's almost an imitation of an imitation.

As soon as we encounter the Sheikh and his daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), we know where it's going. The only surviving child, of course she has been secretly taught all the things only men are supposed to be allowed to do. Occasionally, the film's treatment of Islam steps toward condescending, but to its credit, finds a balance between the two cultures. It may be simplistic and hence unreal, but at least it's not insulting.

Aside from Hidalgo, most of this movie rests on Mortensen's shoulders. Call it a major bid for stardom that the actor claims not to want. After playing Aragorn, it's hard to avoid, and Hidalgo successfully continues his string of heroism. Assuming a twangy gruffness to his voice, Mortensen lets his eyes show much of Hopkins' conflicted self. In a set-up similar to that of Tom Cruise's character in The Last Samurai, guilt over his part in a slaughter tears him up inside. But unlike Cruise, Mortensen makes you believe it. He doesn't wallow in self-pity, but pain leaks through.

Hidalgo has action, fun, and even some real character development. If it didn't tout itself as a true story, it would feel so much more honest.


Derek McCaw

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