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Hidalgo - It is an adventure story but, nonetheless, it clearly makes an effort to respect different cultures



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, Hidalgo.

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 existed.

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 Eastern Arabs.
"Yet all you've got to do is see the movie to know that's not true.

"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 movies.

"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 actor’s view, in showing the benefits of allowing cultures to mix and learn from each other.

"It’s 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, Omar Sharif.

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 movie’s 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 again."

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.

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