I really wasn't sure what to expect when Hidalgo turned up on my doorstep. But one of the joys of reviewing is that a film you know very little about turns up, and manages to reveal itself as a gem in disc form. Hidalgo was certainly one of those experiences.
The film is supposedly a true story, although I suspect that a lot of artistic licence has been used. It is based on the life of Frank T. Hopkins, the first American rider to be invited to compete in an annual 3000 mile horse ride across the Arabian desert, know as the “Ocean of Fire”. Frank has lived an itinerant life, making ends meet doing various jobs alongside his trusty steed Hidalgo, so when Riyadh, an Arab Sheik (Omar Shariff) challenges him to compete in the race, he sees the opportunity for glory and personal redemption.
Hidalgo is the kind of film they rarely make any more, the kind of film it has to be said, which fails to attract the audience demographic which means it is unlikely to be a financial success. Harking back, in very many ways, to David Lean's masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia - the film takes a long lingering look at the life of a true adventurer as he learns about an alien culture, at a time when travel was not as easy as it is today.
Viggo Mortenson was not the star he is today, when he signed on to play the role of Frank - but it is easy to see even here what a talented actor he is. He brings true emotional depth to a character that runs close to caricature in places. Whereas the real Hopkins was a rather self-aggrandising character, always enhancing his achievements - Mortenson plays him as an altogether more tortured soul, who is struggling to deal with his past, and who sees the race as a kind of redemption. His Hopkins is a character with depth, and it is a performance that brings much texture to a film that could easily have become rather formulaic.
The director, Joe Johnstone, is a director who wears his passion for the genre on his sleeve. He obviously adores the sweeping adventure films that were very much the vogue in the sixties. Whether Lean's aforementioned desert epic, the original Zorro stories, or even the infamous Champion, the Wonder Horse on the television, tales of derring do on horses used to be very much the rage. Even Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark was intended as homage to the genre. Johnstone paints his story with epic style, moving his camera with sweep and splendour, and bringing to life the majestic vistas to the extent that they almost become a second character. His film may not quite reach the heights that others have scaled, but he certainly gives it a very good go indeed. This type of film can easily become pedestrian and boring (one only needs to see Australia as an example) but it is to Johnstone's credit that he manages to avoid this.
I have already mentioned the quality of Mortenson's performance, but another beauty of the film is the quality of the performances throughout the rest of the cast. Again, with such a tall story being told, it would be easy to allow your performance to become rather “larger than life”, but the cast pay respect to the story and in doing so flesh the spectacular events out with genuine emotion. You really do care for these characters, and the balance between the spectacular vistas, the emotion, and the action is well maintained.
Something about the film, however, prevents it from reaching the true classic status afforded to some of the comparable films mentioned during this review. The reason for this appears to be a problem with pacing. However well Johnstone juggles the various strands of the film, and knits them together into a coherent whole, he does struggle to leave some scenes on the cutting room floor. The film lasts 2 hrs 15 minutes, but it does seem longer due to the rather inconsistent pacing. Just when it seems to build up some pace, Johnstone lets it slack, introducing long exposition scenes which add little to the overall experience of the viewer. There are two notable scenes like this which allow Mortenson to flesh out his character more and add background, but too often the more lengthy character scenes seem to have no actual purpose for plot development. Perhaps a little more stringent editing would allow an very good film to become a truly great one, but there is no doubt that Hidalgo is still a worthy throwback to a bygone era. It is entertaining, and spectacular in scope, and features a superb performance from Mortenson. Whether the rewatch value is there is possibly debatable, but this is certainly a film that you should try, if you have never had the pleasure.