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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2004)

8. Hidalgo

I have no evidence to support this but I highly suspect that Joe Johnston has wanted to make a western his entire career. The western is certainly a genre that lines up with his love of pulp adventures, two-fisted action, and boyish enthusiasm. Of course, westerns aren't made as often these days as they once were and rarely as populist entertainment. Yet, around 2003, Disney decided to make a big budget adaptation of the adventures of turn-of-the-century trick rider and cowboy Frank Hopkins... Or, rather, his entirely fabricated stories about his own great deeds. Considering his history making old school-style adventure stories for the studios, it makes sense why Disney picked Johnston to direct “Hidalgo.” (The film would eventually be re-christened a Touchstone release.)

Frank Hopkins, a dispatch rider of the government with Sioux heritage, is a first-hand witness of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Several years later, still traumatized by these events, Hopkins is working as a trick rider in Wild Bill's Wild West Show. Partnered with his faithful wild mustang Hidalgo, Hopkins is promoted as the world's greatest long-distance rider. A visiting assistant for an Arabian sheikh offers Hopkins a chance to prove this boast. Frank and Hidalgo are invited to compete in the Ocean of Fire, a three thousand mile endurance race across the harshest parts of the Najd desert. Frank and Hidalgo will not only have to face the challenges of the race but also their statuses as outsiders in a strange land.

By giving the horse top billing, “Hidalgo” announces what kind of story it is. This is a film all about the special bond between a man and his horse. The titular mustang is not just any sort of pony. Early on, he drags an intoxicated Frank to his feet. The horse's whinnies and snorts are given extra doses of personality. More than once, Frank is thrusts into action specifically to protect or defend his horse. The film's final act has Frank giving his faithful steed its freedom and ensuring the survival of the wild Mustang breed. Due to this bond, the most stirring and successful scenes in “Hidalgo” are those that revolve around the hero riding like the wind on horseback. Such as the genuinely exciting climatic race to the finish.

Yet “Hidalgo” belongs to another, very old cinematic tradition. The film undeniably has a “Mighty Whitey” storyline. It's unavoidable. A white American guy goes to a foreign country, impresses or infuriates many of the native people, and manages to beat them at their own contest. He befriends a slave (as if an American has any room to talk on that subject) and humbles the Iranian opposition. He earns the love of an Arabian princess and grabs the respect of her Sheikh father. “Lawrence of Arabia” is an identifiable influence and the film admits as much, by casting Omar Sharif in a prominent supporting role.

And it's obvious that “Hidalgo” is not mean-spirited about this. The film desperately wants to be a multicultural story about sharing identities. The Sheikh, Frank discovers, is a huge lover of western dime novels. He even uses his knowledge of wild west legends to win some favor with the man. The romance he forms with the princess is one based in mutual respect, the two helping each other out when they need it. During the hardest part of the race, Frank pauses to save a rival from drowning in mud. Frank's Native American heritage comes up repeatedly, painting him as a hero that is the result of merging cultures. The film's heart definitely seems to be in the right place...

But there's a problem. “Hidalgo” was released in 2004, not long after American forces invaded Iraq. So its story of a white, American hero traveling to this exact same country can't help but have unfortunate connotations. In general, the film portrays Middle Eastern culture in a mildly lurid light. The film's primary villain is an Islamic extremist, who repeatedly refers to Hopkins as an infidel. At one point, our cowboy hero is tied up by the Sheikh and threatened with castration... For the crime of being in the same tent as the princess. Not to mention the buffoonish Arabic sidekick Frank is given upon joining the race. If this was a much older film, such exoticism and casual Islamophobia could be dismissed as unpleasant but typical of the genre. By being released when it was, it gives “Hidalgo” some uncomfortable subtext. (Screenwriter John Fusco – whose other credits include the “Young Guns” movies and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” so horse movies are kind of his thing – claims no deeper political meaning was intended.)

The film's treatment of Native Americans, sadly, isn't much better. It's very odd that “Hidalgo,” a light-hearted adventure movie, attempts to grapple with the traumatic weight of the massacre of the American Indian. That it chooses to tell this story through a white man's eyes is even weirder. The real Frank Hopkins claimed Lakota ancestry which, like everything else that came out of his mouth, was bullshit. The film runs with this, having Hopkins communicate with a sad, surviving Indian in the wild west show. (A performer that is booed and has stuff thrown at him every night.) At the end, once again, it falls on the white man to save the people of color. Most baffling is a sequence where a near-death Frank, in the Iranian desert, has a vision of a Sioux spirit dance. Because why not throw a little Magical Indian mysticism into the stew too?

As very, very shaky as the film's politics potentially are, “Hidalgo” is still a highly entertaining adventure movie. In fact, it features some wonderfully orchestrated action sequences. Which is unsurprising, I suppose, considering Johnston's action credentials. A swordfight with desert bandits on a hot Middle Eastern night, which occurs while Hopkins is tied up and features a decapitated head plopping to the sands, feels like the swashbuckling sequence Johnston has waited his whole career to make. A race out of a desert city – which includes horseback riding, shoot-outs, racing, and bursting through fences – is another highlight. Fight scenes involving spears or taking place on the cracked, flat desert landscapes are all a wonder to look at.

In a general, “Hidalgo” is easily one of Johnston's prettiest movies. Cinematographer Shelly Johnson, returning from “Jurassic Park III,” creates many high contrast, painterly images. Such as an early dream sequence, prominently featuring Wild Bill and a black-and-gray crowd. Naturally, the windblown dunes and punishing heat of the Middle East desert presents many opportunities for gorgeous images of nature at its harshest. If its not the aforementioned muddy plains or the dusty camps, the film certainly captures the stoic beauty of the region. Johnston's camera gets right into the action scenes and he deploys that cool trick of the hero punching directly into the camera again.

And all of the neat theatricality of the action scenes come crashing down in one supremely silly moment that, for whatever reason, was on most of the movie posters. As you'd expect from a movie about a harsh horse race through the desert, there's a sandstorm sequence. Presumably because it would've been prohibitively expensive and technically arduous to do so for real, CGI is used to create the sandstorm. And, it almost goes without saying, the scene has not aged well. The sight of the hero racing away from a giant CGI blob of sandy doom is neither exciting nor tense. It just looks goofy and bad. The film is lovably low-tech in many ways, causing this scene to stick out like a big, ugly, sore thumb. (Though, credit where its due, this CGI sandstorm does look slightly less rubbery and awful than the CGI sandstorm in “The Scorpion King,” released two years earlier.)

“Hidalgo's” status as throw-back entertainment might make its exact era hard to nail down. However, one element cements the film to 2004. This movie was made during the short-lived period, post-”Lord of the Rings,” when Hollywood wanted to make independent cinema mainstay and character actor Viggo Mortensen into an A-list action hero. While Viggo seems like a weird choice for a western, he's actually pretty good as Hopkins. He has fun clowning around with the horse during his intoxicated scenes. He brings a respectable gravity to the scenes reflecting on the characters American Indian history. As for why Viggo would choose to star in a movie like this, considering his other roles as Aragorn and Alatriste, I'm guessing he's a fan of old school style adventure stories. He's clearly enjoying himself.

Also having a great time is Omar Sharif as the Sheikh Riyadh. While this is the kind of part Sharif played many times over his career, the stern and seemingly contemptuous foreign leader who eventually grows fond of the white hero, he certainly brings an undeniable flair to the part. Moreover, Sharif has solid chemistry with Mortensen, who is clearly in awe of the legendary actor. Said Yaghmaoui is wonderfully over-the-top as Prince Bin al Reeh, the movie's primary villain. It's exactly the kind of mustache swirling bad guy performance a movie like this needs. Even if their parts are brief, it's also nice to see actors like J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Berridge, and Malcolm McDowell so perfectly cast as characters like Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and an effete British aristocrat.

Possibly due to the public-at-large's indifference to westerns or a silly controversy surrounding making a movie based so totally on bullshit, “Hidalgo” was another box office disappointment for Johnston. In all honesty, it was kind of a weird project to get the greenlight in the first place, as its been a long time since people have lined up for an old school adventure story like this. Despite that, “Hidalgo” would win some good notices. Once again, Joe Johnston had nicely synthesized the pulpy adventures of another era to make a pleasant action flick. Its somewhat icky politics aside, “Hidalgo” is certainly an enjoyable experience. [Grade: B]

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