After witnessing the Wounded Knee Massacre, part-Indian former Pony Express rider Frank T. Hopkins (Lord of the Rings star Viggo Mortensen) joins Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where its glorification of the U.S. Cavalry's supposedly heroic victories against the Indians drive Hopkins to drink.
He eventually accepts an offer to ride in the Ocean of Fire, a centuries-old endurance race where many of the participants and their horses fail to even reach the finish line. The first foreigner permitted to enter, Hopkins and his "impure" horse are met with suspicion and curiosity by various Arabs, as well as Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard), a British sponsor of one of the breeds. However, wealthy breeder Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) and his daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) are fascinated by the infidel and his exploits, though his unfamiliarity with Muslim traditions unsurprisingly results in much controversy among the Bedouins.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Hidalgo is Hopkins' character, written as a Clint Eastwood reticent type, an enigmatic Cowboy of few words. That's okay in early scenes were Hopkins is surrounded by larger-than-life Western heroes like Buffalo Bill Cody (J.K. Simmons) and Annie Oakley (Amadeus' Elizabeth Berridge, who really looks like Oakley), both of whom are neatly realized by the actors playing them. Similarly, there's a nice little encounter with Anne's father, Major Davenport (an unbilled Malcolm McDowell, amusingly channeling Andre Morell) where the very British gentleman and the lowly, unpretentious cowboy make an interesting contrast.
Once in the Arabian Desert, however, Hopkins is surrounded by mysterious, unfathomable, unknowable characters, and suddenly there's no one in the film to latch onto. Mortensen's poker-faced performance doesn't help; he's got the right look but makes no lasting impression. All during the movie I couldn't help but imagine how much better the film might have played had Hopkins been conceived more along the lines of James Stewart's starry-eyed (if psychologically troubled) hero of so many '50s Westerns. In Hidalgo, Hopkins as written can at best win only the Arabs' respect; Stewart would have won them over with equal portions of unassuming American charm and indefatigable enthusiasm for and faith in his trusted horse.
Conversely, Sharif has his best role in an English-speaking film in a great many years. He's just wonderful, quietly commanding as the powerful sheikh who, after losing all five of his sons, secretly indulges his daughter with privileges forbidden women under traditional Islamic law. Robinson is also fine as his daughter, though her relationship with Hopkins, if never quite a romance, perilously flirts with offending the film's Muslim audience. Indeed, the film's story - American infidel teaches traditional Arabs a thing or two - wouldn't have raised an eyebrow in 1994 but ten years later, less than 2 1/2 years after 9/11, feels ill-timed though not insensitive.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision with theatrical prints by Technicolor, Hidalgo looks okay if not outstanding on Blu-ray in its 1080p / 2.40:1 transfer, up to current contemporary standards. The high-def format handles the subtleties of the desert sands, horses' manes and the like well, and the few big special effects set pieces (sandstorm, plague of locusts, a 19th century ocean liner) all look nice on big TVs, but nothing in the film matches the visual eye candy found in Touchstone's Blu-ray promo reel that precedes the feature, or the high-def previews included for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and National Treasure: Book of Secrets.
The significantly better audio is in 5.1 uncompressed surround (48 kHz/24-bit) English, along with 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks in English, French, and Spanish. The surround speakers get a workout here, particularly during the sandstorm and racing sequences, as well some fine mixing during the too-short Wild West Show scenes.
Though the cover promises subtitles in English, French, and Spanish only, in fact the disc is encoded with subtitles and menu screens in Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, Bahasa, Malay, and Korean as well.
Arab and Native American dialogue are accompanied by rather garish yellow subtitles. On my player slates inexplicably appeared as well, for English signage on the like, even though I had selected the "subtitles off" option.
Supplements, all standard-def, are meager. Sand & Celluloid (nine minutes) is a routine behind the scenes featurette, no more or less interesting than the typical promo film. America's First Horse (22 minutes), a look at the Spanish Mustang, is somewhat better, though nothing special.
The novelty of Cowboys in Arabia combined with the once popular sport of endurance horse racing, also the subject of the underrated Bite the Bullet (1975), would seem like a winning combination. It never quite comes together in a compelling way although certain elements, particularly Omar Sharif's fine performance and characterization, hint at the great film Hidalgo might have been. Rent It.