Feature by: Jack Foley
HIDALGO star, Viggo Mortensen, seems like an extremely likeable
guy, especially when talking passionately about his fondness for
movies, and the relationship he developed with his equestrian
co-stars while filming his latest action-adventure.
But even he confesses to being a little angry over some of the
reaction to Hidalgo, hinting at hidden motives and a desire to
harm what is, essentially, an old-fashioned family-adventure with
themes that are relevant today.
Mortensen stars as legendary American rider, Frank T Hopkins,
who is invited to enter the Ocean of Fire, a gruelling, 3,000-mile
survival race across the Arabian desert, with his trusted horse,
The ensuing race becomes not only a fight for survival, but a
matter of pride and honour for many of the participants, as well
as the chance for Hopkins to exorcise some past demons, and face
up to his Indian background.
The film performed well at the US box office, after receiving
some positive reviews, but it has fallen foul of both the Long
Riders' Guild (LRG), an international equestrian group, who seriously
question the validity of its claims, and the Council on American-Islamic
Relations, which has criticised it for stereotyping Muslims and
Arabs, and for presenting, as fact, a race that it claims never
The LRG, in particular, labelled Hopkins as a counterfeit
cowboy, who invented his tales for publication in a book
he wrote decades after his alleged achievements.
But while Mortensen admits that some of the movie may pander
to the myth surrounding Hopkins, he remains extremely put out
by many of the accusations, and used a recent London press conference
as a chance to put the record straight, from his point of view.
"Unfortunately there have been some fairly successful attempts,
by a few individuals, over the past couple of years, first in
Arab newspapers, to discredit Hopkins, and they've made the curious
link between how true is it, and yes it's also insulting to Middle
"Yet all you've got to do is see the movie to know that's
"What I learned the most about Frank Hopkins, and Hidalgo,
and the other horses that he rode, came from the American West
- not just from white ranchers, but most importantly, to me, from
American Indian tribes; from native Americans, in different families,
from people who were unrelated to each other, and unrelated to
"You would often find someone who knew about Hopkins, who
would tell you about this or that, and there were always variations
on the theme, but they would all be about Frank T Hopkins, Hidalgo
and this race...
"So why would these people, for generations, have related
a fairly Ango-Saxon looking, or European American, to their culture?
I mean they haven't been treated all that well by that culture,
so there's no reason for it.
"If those efforts by these people, who are not really that
up front about their motives, has, in even the littlest way, distracted
from the value of this money, and the good things that it talks
about, then I think it's a shame."
Mortensen prefers to concentrate on such positives, as, for him,
the project epitomises many of the values he holds dear, such
as the old-fashioned reliance on good story-telling.
But it also succeeds, in the actors view, in showing the
benefits of allowing cultures to mix and learn from each other.
"Its understandable, in the wake of things, recently,
such as Madrid and September 11, 2001, that people in the east
and west are not only fearful, but reluctant, to even make an
effort to find common ground with others.
"But I think this kind of story, in some ways, will remind
you that it is worthwhile, because there are benefits from sharing
experiences and opening our eyes a little bit.
"That's not to say that you're going to please everybody,
as you never are, but I've had many Muslim journalists, for example,
and native American journalists, who have seen the movie, tell
me, 'well, even though I went, somewhat reluctantly, but out of
professional obligation, I was expecting to see something different
from what I saw; something more simplistic, and even if unintentionally,
something that insulted my culture, and I was pleasantly surprised.'
"It is an adventure story but, nonetheless, it clearly makes
an effort to respect different cultures and languages."
Moving away from the controversy, however, Hidalgo also presented
Mortensen with the opportunity to work with horses again, and
to appear alongside one of the great actors in cinema history,
His love of horses stems from an early age, and his equestrian
ability meant that director, Joe Johnston, was able to use him
for a lot of the movies trickier stunt sequences. He even
bought the horse he rode after filming had been completed.
But while he loved the physical challenge of the project, he
did confess to finding some aspects of it a little daunting.
"The most tricky thing we did, and the most dangerous, was
the start of the race, when there was also a lot of wind blowing
on that day. If you have a hundred horses that close together,
you're asking for trouble, especially when they're all stallions.
"Once they all take off, and all that energy is released,
especially when they've had one go at it and know what's expected,
it can be disastrous.
"So there were some really bad falls, on the second take.
One guy's horse just somersaulted, and he was run over by a lot
of us. And that guy did get hurt pretty badly, but we shot long
enough that five months later he returned to us and was riding
As for Omar Sharif, Mortensen believes his presence elevated
the movie to a different level, lending it a greater credibility,
and benefiting from his skill as an actor.
"One of the great things about this experience was working
with him, and I think his casting was very important to the movie.
It was already a good story, but him playing this part, I mean
he's very right for it.
"But personally, it was also a lot of fun to be able to
sit close to him, not only working, but kind of pestering him
with questions about David Lean, Peter O'Toole, and what it was
like for an Egyptian actor to have that experience [in Lawrence
of Arabia]," he concluded.