U.S. Release Date: March 5, 2004
Distributor: Buena Vista
Director: Joe Johnston
Writer: John Fusco
Producer: Casey Silver
Composer: James Newton Howard
Cast: Viggo Mortensen
Running Time: 2 hours and 16 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for adventure violence and some mild innuendo)

Indian Bummer
by Scott Holleran

Daring director Joe Johnston's Midas touch is barely evident in his horseracing saga Hidalgo, which bets on Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and writer John Fusco (Thunderheart, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron).

It's a losing gamble. Mortensen is sluggish as a half-Indian, half-white Pony Express rider. Fusco's unfocused script is a mix of adventure and tribalism. What director Johnston (Jumanji, October Sky, The Rocketeer) clearly intended as a hero's epic quest is spoiled by a theme which is neither heroic nor larger than life.

Mortensen's rider begins his journey in 1890, when he delivers a fateful message to the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The ensuing battle—the Cavalry is depicted as bloodthirsty—forms Hidalgo's struggle.

After the clash at Wounded Knee, Mortensen slips into a guilt-ridden stupor. While working for Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show (with a gamy version of Annie Oakley), Mortensen accepts an invitation to race Spanish Mustang Hidalgo in the Arabian Desert.

The Arabian sands provide stock villains, a sheik's feisty daughter, an evil aristocrat and subplots about Islam, infidels and one's inner Indian. Screenwriter Fusco, whose conservation work with horses led him to write Hidalgo, weaves multiculturalism, environmentalism and racism into a patchwork tribute to the tribe. He doesn't succeed.

Mortensen's mumbling horseman is more a high plains drifter than a high-minded hero and it's hard to root for someone to whom winning a 3,000-mile race matters less with each stride. Hidalgo's politically correct clichés undercut the cultural climax between Islam and the West and, as Mortensen's character—based on Pony Express rider Frank T. Hopkins—must choose whether to be a cowboy or Indian, contradictions abound.

Aided by the Moslem love interest, which is a distraction from the racing, Mortensen chooses and finishes his expedition. In the end, he is selfless, renouncing every value he has achieved, from riding to romance. Hidalgo, holding everything primitive—Indian culture, Islam, wild horses—as sacred, steadily trots its tribal ghost dance.

While some may question the picture's portrayal of Hopkins, it is interesting that Hidalgo's historic catalyst, the U.S. Cavalry's actions at Wounded Knee, is in serious dispute. The carnage at Wounded Knee occurred after a Sioux warrior wounded an American officer and U.S. troops, who shot almost 200 men, women and children, later claimed that it was not easy to distinguish between the Indian men and women.

Though flawed, Hidalgo has its moments. Desert photography offers the finest scenes and Lawrence of Arabia's Omar Sharif, playing the sheik, is always a pleasure to watch. Johnston, who has directed the imaginative The Pagemaster and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and designed crucial sequences for The Iron Giant and Always, is likely to recover from Hidalgo.

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