Controversy swarms around the movie Hidalgo like a pesky horsefly on a hot afternoon. Was Frank T. Hopkins really who he claimed to be or merely a man who could tell a good story? Is there any authenticity to his claims and if so, where is it?
Before getting your reins in a knot over the debate, remember this is the Wild West, where tales of men who loomed larger than life, lured people across the plains. An era built on legend and lore when newspaper reporters and dime store novelists were wont to stretch the truth, just a tad, in order to promote the vast territory to foreigners and settlers from the East. And trying to untangle fact from fiction will only distract from the transcendent themes this film forks over for discussion.
Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) is a half-breed; the son of an army officer and a Sioux chief's daughter. He's a man who doesn't quite fit in either world and instead chooses to avoid them both. Working as a pony express rider, he travels alone for hundreds of miles on his horse Hidalgo, carrying mail and army orders from one post to another.
Then somewhere along the way, his life hits a snag that pushes him to find solace in a liquor bottle and dumps him into the role of an entertainer, wearing a costume and a painted face in a Wild West show. There, the frequently drunk cowboy and his horse become the laughing stock of the performance. Luckily their downward spiral stops when they get an offer from a visiting Middle Eastern dignitary that they can't pass up.
Invited to participate in a 3000-mile endurance race across the burning sands of the Arabian Desert, the painted mustang and his owner will face the pedigreed mounts of Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) and an English aristocrat, Lady Davenport (Louise Lombard), as well as a hundred or more other steeds. While a hefty purse awaits the winner, the real prize appears to be making it to the finish line at all.
However it doesn't take long to recognize the real battle of this story is between the notions of long-recorded bloodlines and mixed heritage. On this new racing front, Frank also witnesses the same kind of cultural and social skirmishes that trouble his society at home. Seen as somehow inferior because of their genetics, Frank and his cayuse have to prove that a strong will and honorable conduct aren't necessarily the result of breeding. He gets that chance when the Sheikh's daughter (Zuleikha Robinson) is kidnapped by upstarts who want to force the royal family to hand over their prized stallion.
Pushing the limits of violence for most PG-13 movies, the action, including impalings and a beheading, may cause this movie to lose its footing for many family viewers. Still this horse and rider saddle up for a timely tale; whether or not it's entirely true.