Our rating: 3 out of 5
Rough rider by nature and Indian agent by trade, Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) is the best-known long distance horse racer in the states. Ashamed of his Indian heritage, Frank and his horse Hidalgo are asked to take a special report to the troops guarding the Indian encampment. The orders are to move the natives to the reservation and kill any who resist. A misunderstanding ends in the slaughter of the entire tribe. Guilt-ridden, Frank joins up with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Drinking himself senseless before every performance, he is pressured by Bill (J.K. Simmons) to accept an invitation from a Bedouin sheikh (Omar Sharif) to join the most dangerous long-distance race in the Saudi desert. The sheikh has been offended that Hidalgo is called the finest race horse in the world since he prides himself on breeding pureblood champions.
With the advice of an old Indian friend and mentor, Frank and Hidalgo make the long trip across "the big pond" to compete. Rivalries are fierce in the desert and all mock the American cowboy with his impressive Colt revolver and southern drawl. Only Lady Davenport (Louise Lombard) seems to take him seriously. If her mare wins this race, Lady Davenport will be allowed to breed her with the sheikh's stallion and thus assure a noble bloodline. The sheikh himself desires Frank to lose since his own stallion has been entered. Frank is warned it is the most dangerous terrain in the four corners of the world. Long, hot days of sand traps, wind storms, and hostile locals through which few riders will emerge triumphant. They will start out with a hundred horses and only a handful will make it to the last.
The one woman rooting for him is the sheikh's beautiful daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), who has been promised to her father's jockey in marriage if he wins the race. Little do they know that the famed bloodline of the sheikh's stallion is desired by a treacherous third party. Frank will not only have to battle sandstorms, plagues of locust, quicksand, and long days without water, he will also be forced to risk his own life in a favor to the sheikh. Based loosely on real-life events, Hidalgo has a promising beginning and a rewarding finish but lags in the middle. Scenes of him riding across the desert, fighting off Bedouin attackers, and waging war with his own inner demons slow down the pace of the plot considerably. There is a lot of action and with it comes bloodshed. The race is far from safe... horses go plunging down hills, fall into sand traps, and are chased by wild animals. Hidalgo is near-mortally wounded when he falls into a pit of spears. One of them pierces his flesh and we see Frank graphically cut it out, then burn the wound with a hot knife.
A man loses his head in a clean swipe; it falls to the ground in front of Frank, who kicks it out of the way. Wild cats attack and maul someone but only the man's screams are heard. After a plague of locusts, Frank remembers what Jazira told him about the desert and eats one (then offers others to his horse). In rescuing the sheikh's daughter, a large black man spears several opponents before being shot and killed. Frank is a flawed hero... on one hand he refuses to let one of his competitors die. The man has fallen into quicksand and pleads Frank to go on since "Allah has chosen this fate." Instead Frank rescues him. In another instance, he allows his chief nemesis to die by deliberately dumping him into a bed of spikes. (His excuse? "Nobody hurts my horse.") Animal lovers should also be forewarned... though there are some gorgeous horses here, some of them don't make it to the end of the race. Early on one hurts its foreleg and its owner plunges a dagger into its heart.
There isn't any outright sexual content but a scene in which Frank is threatened with being castrated for "taking advantage" of the sheikh's daughter is still unnecessary. (The girl came to his tent in order to offer him help in surviving the race and her father's guards found them together.) Her captors are hostile but not sexual in their remarks. There are a couple of flippant innuendos about breeding and age, and much talk of bloodlines. In a twist with a positive outcome, Lady Davenport invites Hank to her tent late in the evening. She makes him an open offer to stay the night and he refuses. (She's a married woman and besides that -- he doesn't trust her.) There's some drinking, smoking, and mild swearing (but no abuses of God's name). The most disappointing thing about Hidalgo is the spiritual implications. Frank is encouraged to embrace the Indian religion; when his horse lies on the brink of death, he sees visions of his Indian ancestors and chants in their native tongue. He also makes some questionable remarks about God.
Lady Davenport is referred to as a "Christian woman" but pays Bedouins to make certain Frank doesn't cross the finish line and attempts to seduce him. (It's more a reference to her European heritage but is still a deliberate slur.) Arabs talk a great deal about the Koran, Allah, and prayers. It's also interesting to note that the opening scene where the Indians are killed is skewed slightly to make it look as though they were massacred when in reality they fought back and killed a number of scouts. Like most modern westerns the Indians are embraced and all White Men are scum. Hidalgo is worth viewing if you like grand adventures and triumph over adversity. There are some good moral values tucked into the politically correct plot. But for more squeamish and sensitive viewers, Black Beauty is a more positive choice.