Horse of a different color 

Hidalgo's race story conceals propaganda message

If you like propaganda, you'll love Hidalgo. Superficially, it's a limp entertainment about a pony express courier (Viggo Mortensen) and his eponymous mustang competing in a 3,000-mile race across the Sahara Desert. But on the sidelines, Hidalgo extols the superiority of Western values over Middle Eastern culture, and implicitly justifies U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf.

Hidalgo doesn't argue those points in so many words. John Fusco's screenplay adapts the (highly suspect) writings of Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a half-Native American long-distance horse racer. After witnessing the massacre at Wounded Knee, Hopkins becomes a brooding, boozing performer in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show. Despite being routinely upstaged by his horse, Hopkins receives an invitation to be the first "infidel" to partake in an ancient Bedouin race called "The Ocean of Fire."

Hidalgo attempts to be an old-fashioned romp along the lines of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hopkins follows in John Wayne's footsteps as a soft-spoken, two-fisted Marlboro man, his spurs jangling wherever he walks. Hidalgo could be the steed of any singing cowboy -- he answers to whistles and widens eyes for reaction shots.

At best, the filmmakers don't know the difference between paying homage to the movies of the 1930s and simply repeating their racial stereotypes. At worse, Hidalgo deliberately portrays the Middle East as a barbarous, oppressive and treacherous society. It's an exotic locale of scimitars, hookahs, slaves and cornball dialogue like, "Verily, you do not know our ways."

Hopkins encounters Arabs who are villains, buffoons, or both, from the cheating aristocrats he competes against to the doddering holy man who starts the race. Even the sympathetic or honorable Muslim roles contain massive flaws. Sheikh Riyadh (a charming, cleverly cast Omar Sharif) proves to be noble and humane, but also treats his daughter like property and quotes the Koran to justify his belief in racial purity.

In fact, nearly every character in the film but Hopkins drones on about the superiority of "pure" thoroughbreds over mustangs, disdained as mongrels. The film hammers the point that horses like Hidalgo -- and people like Hopkins -- should be judged by ability, not lineage. Boy, does Hidalgo hammer the point. The film even wheels out English snobs (such as an uncredited Malcolm McDowell) to bluster about upper-class breeding. The film celebrates the democratic, all-American melting pot, and Hidalgo emerges as an underdog like Seabiscuit.

Hidalgo repeatedly mentions that the race goes through Iraq en route to the finish line in Damascus -- a detail that, geographically, seems inessential and easily edited. But the filmmakers seem intent on putting Iraq in our minds, jogging our memories of the war and the occupation. When the sheikh's evil nephew kidnaps the princess, he threatens to send back her "head wrapped in Baghdad silk." Apparently, the Persian Gulf, then as now, desperately needs an American to set everyone straight. Allah must be for losers.

Some of the Arabic characters learn their lesson. The sheikh, fascinated by Hopkins, Western dime novels and Colt .45s, gradually learns the error of his ways. Others begin to respect and root for Hopkins and his plain dealing, cheering "Cowboy! Cowboy!" when he appears. It's how Dubya must have imagined we'd be received after toppling Saddam Hussein.

Hidalgo inoculates itself against charges of jingoism with a harsh portrait of the U.S. Cavalry. Native Americans (and their horses) turn out to be the film's only true good guys, and Mortensen seems most interested in the script when Hopkins wrestles with his mixed heritage. The actor's mild, self-effacing style helps humanize an action film, but he seldom wears the role's brashness or humorous moments very comfortably.

Were Hidalgo a better movie, audiences could more easily excuse or ignore its xenophobia. But apart from its vibrant Lawrence of Arabia dunes and some cool sandstorm effects, Hidalgo plods wearily between frantic action scenes and monotonous stretches of Hopkins and his horse baking in the sun. Maybe ticket-buyers will be too bored to absorb Hidalgo's cultural insults.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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    • Local band Manchester Orchestra, who provided the soundtrack, probably would have appreciated a shout-out.

    • on June 29, 2016
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