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Viggo Mortensen is not about the words. He's about being... present. The fortysomething actor creditably invests the creative capital he's amassed from being Peter Jackson's weathered heartthrob of a King in the billion-dollar-plus-grossing Rings trilogy. Hidalgo is rousing, uncomplicated entertainment. There are layers of history and subtext under its horse opera saddle, and while this is not quite David Lean material, but there's hardly a thing wrong with this "Aragorn of Arabia" action-adventure.
Mortensen's an actor I'm content just to watch: Those riven cheeks, taut against blade-sharp cheekbones, features that gift golden hour. He quietly inhabits the role of Frank Hopkins, an actual historical figure, part Indian, who bonds with his half-wild Spanish mustang, Hidalgo, which is the name for the lowest rung of Spanish nobility. Or, as John Fusco's script informs us: "Mustang, from the Spanish for untamed."
Hopkins was considered one of the greatest riders of the American west, but when Hidalgo begins, his glory days are past. He's drinking his days away in a Wild West show. He offends a visiting Arab, who then taunts him with the idea of joining the Ocean of Fire, a life-endangering 3,000-mile race across the Arabian Desert. The sixty-eight days across the desert are compressed into a cleanly drawn narrative, not least because the Bedouin are presented as a parallel horse culture. And when Mortensen's blessed taciturnity's put up against the incurable ham that is Omar Sharif's Sheikh Riyadh? A match made in at least the balcony of movie heaven.
Fusco's dialogue and most of the performers' dry, quiet delivery is witty, rather than sarcastic, unlike, say, Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Hidalgo lacks the arrogance of a vehicle for the younger Harrison Ford (although Johnston shared an Oscar as visual effects art director on Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Johnston's an underappreciated craftsman, with such movies under his belt as The Rocketeer, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jurassic Park III and October Sky. Of course, he does note an arrival in an Arabic port by dusk through a muezzin in full cry atop a minaret, but that's less cliché than shorthand in these capable hands.
A measure of the directorial skill on display is how the characters dance a fine line between amusing and the potentially risible. "You survived the sandstorm. Allah must have a more severe judgment in store"; "Fear not the locusts, they are gifts from above"; "Can one believe an unbeliever"? You know a director's good when he can have an actor can play a line like, "He is the bastard son of a jackal who would have his gypsies commit crimes upon her!" and sell it, with reverberations of the same "innocent" movie thrills savored by Lucas and Spielberg, but without winking too much. Johnston and Fusco manage to trump the too-common snarky references back to misremembered Saturday matinee fodder. (On-screen, Johnston shares his possessory credit with the writer: it's "a film by Joe Johnston and John Fusco," a graceful sharing I can only recall on Mike Hodges' Croupier and I'll Sleep When I'm Dead.)
There is a genre knowingness to a claim like "God didn't make all men equal, Mr. Colt did," but I have to love a movie that lets someone say, "Easy, boys, it's a long way to Damascus." This is not the tin-eared grit of the misbegotten The Missing. Marvel at how Mortensen can all but whisper his lines: "Ain't no money worth a man's life, the way I see it"; "Nobody hurts my horse." He plays tired real good. Idealism resonates all the way through.
One of the production's smartest moves was to hire editor Robert Dalva, who collaborated with director Carroll Ballard on the classic ode to horse-love, The Black Stallion. The fluent cutting rhythms on the action scenes is satisfying, and they take it one step further: giving Hidalgo reaction shots. A simple glance as it turns its head makes for several memorable, if goofy comic moments.
Cinematographer Shelly Johnson's credits for television and film are mostly undistinguished, but his work here is terrific, and Mortensen's the kind of actor-turned-star who allows himself to be shot in shadow and mottle and shade, a palette of light that often obscures his features as much as illuminates them.
There are several terrific scenes including a bad guy attacked by psychotically acrobatic desert cats, and a breath-swallowing thunderhead of sandstorm. But I love the ending. It's hopeful, bittersweet, epic: a vast herd of wild horses set free against a vaster range of hills, undulant flesh against undulant verdancy. And holding the shot. And choosing the precise gratifying, heart-stopping frame to place another, similar perspective. It's like a shot of the ocean, a river, the limitless sky.