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Fri March 5, 2004
It's arid and slow.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
In 1890 it appears there was little enough for a cowboy to do, so why not win some money racing the titular mustang, Hidalgo, against 100 of the best Arabian horses in the world--in Arabia! Viggo Mortensen, playing the legendary cavalry-courier Frank Hopkins, who supposedly won about 400 long-distance races, negotiates the sands, wily Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), his doe-eyed daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), and a nefarious Brit blonde Lady Ann Davenport (Louise Lombard) to--Well, I'm not going to spoil the outcome because that is the only plot point worth anything.
This is "Seabiscuit" on sand, a Western in the East with all the Hollywood clich?s perfectly preserved from sun and wind. Does Davenport lust after the studly cowboy? Does the young daughter hope to snag the cowboy and toss off her veil? Is there a wicked Arabian contestant, guided by the scheming Brit, who will stop at nothing to win? These are just a few of the relentless plot antiquities chosen by director Joe Johnston ("Jurassic Park III") to move a weary plot to its obvious conclusion.
I can't figure out how the film couldn't be suspenseful, but I began to feel it was all in real time as I reached for my bottled water in sympathy for Hidalgo and the cowboy. There was, however, a hint of intelligence when the idea of "infidel" was mentioned. Sheikh Riyadh refusing to touch the cowboy infidel lest sheikh lose his ability to see the future was intriguing, as was Riyadh's unwillingness even to touch the infidel. The Muslim culture is the most interesting part of the film. Contemporary mid-Eastern attitudes toward the West translate appropriately at the turn of the 20th century.
"Hidalgo" might have been released last year--Now you know why it wasn't. It's arid and slow. Lightened only briefly by a simple shot of Sharif playing cards in a tent, a sly reference to his mastery of Bridge, something eminently better for him to do than playing a fatuous sheikh. Jizara asks Hopkins, "Why do I feel that you truly see me when others do not?" The answer is, like the film, obvious: She's taken off her veil.
Robert Lynd said, "In choosing the winner of a horse race, a good guess may beat all the skill and all the special knowledge in the world." I'm guessing Hopkins wins and the movie loses.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.