Feature: Explaining 'Hidalgo'

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter
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LOS ANGELES, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- Like The Walt Disney Co.'s other 2004 box-office misfires -- including "King Arthur," "Around the World in 80 Days" and "Home on the Range" -- "Hidalgo" had all the essential ingredients for marketplace success but still came up short at the ticket window.

An adventure set in the American West and the Middle East of the 1890s, the Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation starred Viggo Mortensen as Frank Hopkins, the renowned American endurance/distance horse racer who rode his mustang to victory in a grueling 3,000-mile race against Arabian-bred stallions in the Arabian Desert.


It was Mortensen's first appearance in theaters since his star-making turn as the heroic Aragorn in the Oscar-winning "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It was directed by Joe Johnston, whose credits also include "Jurassic Park III" and "Jumanji."


Opening to decent but not wonderful reviews in March, "Hidalgo" grossed $67.3 million at the U.S. box office and another $17.8 million in overseas markets.

In an interview with United Press International, Mortensen said he was convinced the movie was at least partly done in by a whisper campaign. He thought it might have been instigated by people who didn't want the horse of the film's title -- a Spanish mustang -- to be perceived as superior to Arabian-bred horses.

Even though the story of "Hidalgo" is based on a true episode in Hopkins' life, Mortensen said that when he was doing publicity for the movie's opening most entertainment reporters had an idea that the story was a fabrication.

"Most of the interviewers said, 'Well, none of it's true,'" said Mortensen.

Screenwriter and wild-horse preservationist John Fusco ("Young Guns," "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron") researched Hopkins' story for 12 years. Mortensen said that in his research for the role, he heard tales of Hopkins from American Indians who passed the knowledge through generations of oral tradition -- so he was put off when some skeptical entertainment journalists questioned the authenticity of Hopkins' story.

"It was a real disservice, not only to Hopkins and his family, but it was disrespectful to those Native Americans," said Mortensen. "But you've got to be patient sometimes and the truth will out."


Mortensen is so insistent on spreading the word about Hopkins' life and work that he made a special point several times during the interview to call attention to a Web site devoted to the subject (

Johnston, producer Casey Silver and their production-design team have described going to great lengths to ensure cultural verisimilitude in the movie, but some critics found the film's depiction of 19th-century Middle Eastern culture problematic for a 21st-century theatrical release.

Variety said the movie felt "less like a slice of history than like a large hunk of Hollywood hokum" from the 1940s and '50s.

"With its sinister Arabs, an unusually forthright veiled woman, snooty Brits and an untamed, impossibly handsome American loner standing head and shoulders above them all, it's as if the past five decades, much less the last 2 1/2 years, had never happened," said the paper. "Use of antiquated archetypes will prove refreshing to some and rather weird to others."

Mortensen said those kinds of questions came up frequently during his press tour for the movie earlier this year.

"I spent 50 percent of my time defending the fact that we made this movie," he said.

However, Mortensen said Hopkins' demeanor in "Hidalgo" could just as easily have been embraced as an example of the best American qualities on display in a foreign land.


"Especially in the times we're living in," he said. "He's a good example of how Americans can be. He's a little suspicious but also open-minded. Our servicemen and women in Iraq, they're basically that way, I'm sure. When they travel they try to look for the good in people rather than the bad."

Mortensen said that, instead, the movie came off as an "American jingoistic exercise" for some critics.

"Some newspapers were even implying that it justifies what the United States is doing now militarily," he said.

Part of the movie's problem in the marketplace may have had to do with what Variety called its "old-fashioned" production values. Analysts made the same observation about "Home on the Range" -- which got excellent reviews, yet still stalled at just less than $50 million at the U.S. box-office.

The Disney animated feature was one of the last -- if not the last -- of its genre to be made with traditional animation methods instead of the now-dominant computer animation that has been exploited so successfully by Pixar ("Toy Story," "Finding Nemo") and DreamWorks ("Shrek," "Shrek 2").

The new DVD release of "Hidalgo" includes a feature on the making of the movie, as well as a computer-enhanced feature on the history of the horse's ancestors, the Spanish mustangs brought to the New World by the early Spanish explorers.



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