Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif and Louise Lombard
Director: Joe Johnston
HELD yearly for centuries, ‘Ocean of Fire’ is a 5000 km survival horse race across the Arabian desert, a challenge restricted to the finest Arabian horses ever bred, the purest and noblest lines, owned by the greatest royal families.
In 1890, a wealthy sheik (Omar Sharif) invited an American, Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), and his horse to enter the race for the first time. During the course of his career, Hopkins was a cowboy and dispatch rider for the US cavalry and had once been billed as the greatest rider the West had ever known.
The sheik puts his claim to the test, pitting the American cowboy and his mustang, Hidalgo, against the world’s greatest Arabian horses and Bedouin riders, some of whom are determined to prevent a foreigner from finishing the race.
For Frank, the ‘Ocean of Fire’ becomes not only a matter of pride and honour, but also a race for his very survival as he and his horse attempt the impossible.
Based on a true story, Hildago is a sumptuous production with outstanding art direction, locations and sets from Barry Robison. A little too much so. Were heavy oak Victorian beds actually carried into the desert for use in the overnight camps? Selly Johnston’s cinematography is also excellent and James Newton Howard composes a massive score.
As good as it looks, there are loads of mistakes throughout Hidalgo, like whether the noblewoman from England is Lady Anne or Lady Davenport.
In 1890 such a thing mattered. She seems to have an array of filtered sunglasses before they were invented and, even though the sheik is fastidious about Islamic law, this lady of the realm parades around showing her face, hair, neck and shoulders.
Most importantly I kept wondering how, without ever looking at a compass, did Mr Hopkins and his horse know the way?
The real problem with this film, however, is that it feels like we’ve seen it all before, just in different movies. Hidalgo is Indiana Jones meets The English Patient meets The Wild, Wild West meets Sea Biscuit.
Writer John Fusco tries to add depth to the story with a mild commentary on the massacre of the Indian people, the African slave trade and the poor treatment of women, but that doesn’t mean the film is Left leaning.
Indeed, with a resonance that could not have been lost on the makers of this film, Westerners are called ‘infidels’ by their Muslim hosts and, surprise, surprise, the cowboy from the USA wins the race over his evil Islamic adversaries by being courteous, honourable and good. It’s all a bit much.
Viggo Mortensen brings a great presence and a fine accent to this thankless role, but he hardly looks 25 years of age, which is what the original Mr Hopkins was at the time. This wouldn’t make any difference except we’re given all the relevant dates at the end of the film to go figure.
Toward the end of Hidalgo the script spins off into the mystical to get our hero out of a tight spot. With the spirits on his side, who can be against him?