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After spending 18 months surrounded by horses in New Zealand filming Lord of the Rings, man's man Viggo Mortensen trekked off to Morocco and saddled-up another four-legged beast for new movie Hidalgo.
Woah there! Next month sees the release of Hidalgo on R2. Not only is it an epic adventure in the classic Hollywood mold, but, according to totalDVD sources, it should arrive on a cracking disc bedecked with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and heaps of sumptuous extras.
This character-driven movie focuses on Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a part Native American ex-US soldier who quit the army after witnessing the atrocities committed at the Battle of Wounded Knee. Ever since, he's taken shelter wherever he can, whether it be in the bottom of a bottle of whiskey, or his job as a stunt rider in Buffalo Bill's Wild West review. Nothing, however, seems to be able to take away the deep sense of guilt that has taken residence in his soul. Salvation comes his way in the shape of an envoy from Saudi Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), who has heard of Hopkins' riding prowess and the reputation of his mustang Hidalgo, and is determined to prove that Arab horses and riders are far superior than their American brothers. Soon Hopkins finds himself in a gruelling race across the desert. Will he win? Will he even survive?
While waiting for the DVD to hit the shelves, Total DVD managed to find time to shoot the breeze with Hidalgo star Viggo Mortensen, and found out everything we needed to know about bareback riding and Omar Sharif...
Viggo, why did you want to get involved in Hidalgo?
There were a lot of things that interested me initially, and I ended up liking the project more and more as I went along. First of all I liked the fact that the idea was to tell this story in such a straightforward way, with such an emphasis on character. Obviously John Ford and David Lean were geniuses, but if you look at their films there's a tendency to linger just a bit on the landscape, which is very different from what we did. It also struck me when I read the script that this was a story that needed telling, especially with the state of the world as it is now. I think it's valuable to see an American protagonist going to a different part of the world, and actually being willing to learn about other cultures and ways of life.
You seem to be very good with horses. Did you do much training?
I actually knew quite a lot already, partly because of the things we had to do for Lord of the Rings, but also because I used to ride a lot when I was a boy. That was another of the reasons I wanted to get involved in the film in the first place. The amount of horsemanship allowed me to really get back to the physical side of riding, and also renew my affection for horses generally. I remembered just how much I enjoy being around them. I loved the horses I rode, especially one named TJ.
That must have been a huge advantage when you were filming...
The best thing about it was that I had the ability to do a lot stunts that most actors wouldn't usually be able to do. From the director's point of view, that meant he could film me as close as he wanted to without cutting away, which made things a lot simpler and probably helped the film flow a bit better.
Is it true you enjoy riding bareback?
It is. Every time you ride, you should ride a little bareback, as well as with a saddle, because it's good for your balance. It's not easy though - no amount of preparation or physical training is going to prepare you for the kind of jarring that you get when you put yourself in that position. The bareback sequence that you see in Hidalgo had to be done numerous times. That was very uncomfortable indeed!
Were the film's horse sequences as dangerous as they looked?
Some of them were. Probably the scariest scene was the start of the race, just because of the sheer amount of animals involved. If you put that number of horses in the same place at the same time, you're asking for trouble - especially, if they're all stallions. Once they take off and all that energy is released it's dangerous - you never know what they're going to do, and we ended up having some really bad falls. The producers didn't know how dangerous it was, but I know Rex Peterson (head wrangler) was really sweating bullets on the day that we were shooting that particular scene.
Much of the film is based on myth and conjecture. Are you comfortable with that?
To be honest, I would have been happy to go with 100 per cent myth, just because it's such a good, old-fashioned adventure story. That said, the fact that it is about someone that really existed and events that actually happened is very important to me, especially when it comes out of such a long-standing oral tradition. Unfortunately there have been some fairly successful attempts by a few individuals to discredit Hopkins and say it doesn't represent Arab culture fairly. This without even seeing the movie, which I think is a shame.
Has the criticism the film received in some quarters surprised you?
No, because people are always going to criticise things. What I have found is that if you take the time and watch it, the movie will speak for itself. I've had feedback from both Native American and Muslim journalists, who told me that they were pleasantly surprised with what they saw. It's not a documentary, but we did try to make an effort to respect those cultures.
Did you enjoy working with Omar Sharif?
How could you not? He's very right for the part because of his background as an Egyptian actor in Hollywood - he's got one foot in the east and one in the west. It was great to work with him because of Lawrence of Arabia and his place in cinema history; not only working with him, but pestering him with questions about David Lean and Peter O'Toole and all that. I didn't know it at the time, but he's also known for his love of horses. I think every time he makes money he likes to buy one, usually a racehorse.
It looks like it was a hard shoot. How did you keep yourself occupied on set?
I wrote quite a bit and I took a fair amount of pictures, some of which I've shown. I secreted a couple of cameras in my saddlebags and took a lot of stuff from both the rider's and the horse's point of view. I found it a good way to get to know the environment.
Finally, why did you choose to make Hidalgo straight after Lord of the Rings?
Well, it just worked out that way. But the timing of the movies weren't actually as neat as it might look - in reality I got the part of Frank Hopkins just after The Fellowship of the Ring came out, and we were shooting just after The Two Towers. I'd be doing Rings interviews while filming this, or doing re-shoots in New Zealand during Hidalgo rehearsals. I haven't had a chance to stop and think.