A western set in Arabia sounds unlikely, but Hidalgo is an interesting adventure yarn of the old school
© Touchstone / Buena Vista Pictures.
I have often been misquoted as having said that there's no such thing as a bad western. What I wrote was that there's no such thing as an uninteresting western, and Hidalgo, directed by Joe Johnston who made October Sky and Jumanji, is certainly interesting.
Earlier this year, in The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise played a dispirited US cavalry officer in 1876, the year of Custer's defeat at the Little Big Horn, who is disgusted by the treatment of the Indians and finds redemption fighting for a traditional clan in Japan.
In Hidalgo, also vaguely inspired by a true story, a cavalry scout and ace horseman called Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) witnesses the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890, takes to drink and becomes a self-disgusted performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
He finds redemption taking part in a gruelling 3,000-mile horse race across the desert from Aden to Damascus. The winner will receive $100,000, but most of the riders are likely to perish.
Hopkins will be the first Westerner to participate in this ancient event and the idea is to test his famous mustang, Hidalgo, against the best Arab steeds, most notably one belonging to the fabulously wealthy Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), a man who can trace his ancestry back to Adam.
Hopkins is half-Indian and Hidalgo is a wild horse of the plains that, as with the equine hero of the recent movie Seabiscuit, is up against the world's great thoroughbreds. The result is a grand adventure yarn that mixes elements from a traditional western and a race-track movie with bits of Lawrence of Arabia (inevitably evoked by the presence of Sharif) and those old Hollywood movies that starred Rudolph Valentino or Maria Montez, in which Arabs begin virtually every statement with the fateful phrase: 'It is written...'
The desert landscapes (the movie was shot largely in Morocco) look magnificent, and during the race the competitors are subjected to a massive sandstorm, a swarm of locusts, quicksand and brigands.
Conspiring against Hopkins and Sheikh Riyadh are a renegade prince who wants to get his hands on Riyadh's horse and stud book, and the scheming Lady Anne Davenport, an aristocratic Arabist and horse-breeder, who dresses in the desert as if about to join the Easter Parade.
By implication, Lady Anne (a cross between Lady Hester Stanhope and Elinor Glyn) is contrasted with her namesake, the unaffected Annie Oakley who, with other members of Buffalo Bill's troupe, puts her money on Hopkins to win the race.
One would have little difficulty in showing this movie to be a double-edged allegory about America today and its relationship to Europe, the Arab world and its own ethnic minorities. It would be fascinating, if dangerous, to observe an audience in Iraq or Syria responding to the depiction of an Arab crowd cheering the victorious Hopkins and his horse.
The film, however, virtually ignores the politics of its time, with not a hint of the Turkish presence in the Middle East. Everything centres on the confrontation of the sheikh and Hopkins - Sharif, the grinning, gap-toothed autocrat representing fate and ancient lineage, and Mortensen, the smiling deep-dimpled democrat, standing for free will and a mixture of Yankee cunning and Native American spirituality.
Their mutual respect grows steadily through the movie, except for one edgily comic moment when the Arab proposes to castrate the American for having looked upon the face of his daughter. Ironically, in a movie that deals largely in cliches, myths and stereotypes, we are invited to find amusing the fact that the sheikh is in thrall to the legends of the Earps, Wild Bill Hickok and the heroes of the West. While he talks like something out of the Arabian Nights, his favourite reading is Beadle's Dime Novels.