Photo: © 2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. All rights reserved.

Director(s): Joe Johnston

Writer(s): John Fusco

Cast: , Zuleikha Robinson, Omar Sharif, Louise Lombard, Adam Alexi-Malle, Said Taghmaoui and Adoni Maropis

Release Date(s)

Mar 5, 2004 - Wide

Hidalgo takes viewers back to the type of adventure flick young viewers would line up to see on a Saturday matinee.

Starring Viggo Mortensen, the film is based on the life of Frank T. Hopkins, a legendary horsemen of the American west, and his mustang, Hidalgo. With their glory days over, Hopkins becomes the first American invited to enter the Ocean of Fire, a grueling 3,000-mile survival race across punishing terrain of the Arabian Desert.

“I think audiences everywhere will connect with the story of Frank Hopkins,” says Casey Silver, producer of Hidalgo. “There’s an exciting race that frames the story, but the real race is this man’s race to find himself, to find forgiveness within himself for his transgressions – the themes are compelling.”

The story that screenwriter John Fusco tells came about when he was doing conservation work with horses of original Native American bloodlines.

“I was doing some research into the classic Indian ponies that you see in Remington and Russell sculptures, and this name kept coming up – Hopkins – who rode a famed Indian pony, named Hidalgo. Reading about them, it led me to this legendary race across the Arabian desert. There was only so much that I could find on them, but it was enough to tell me that this was an incredible story.”

Horses are in the blood (ink?) of this writer, who also penned the scripts for Young Guns, Young Guns II, and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Fusco spent 12 years researching and writing the screenplay, which draws upon 70 years of collected writings on Hopkins and Hidalgo by such noted historians as J. Frank Dobie and Dr. Ruy d’Andrade.

“Ultimately, this is a classic hero’s journey,” says Viggo Mortensen, who plays the legendary rider. “Hopkins has to leave his familiar surroundings, and overcome, in a strange place, the obstacles and dangers in his path. What’s really interesting about the Ocean of Fire race is that it doesn’t really matter who wins in the end. It’s a question of getting through it, and what happens to a person as a result of going through that experience.”

The film was directed by Joe Johnston, a veteran of such films as October Sky, Jurassic Park III, and Jumanji. Johnston was hooked when he read the first draft.

“When I closed the script I knew I couldn’t say no. Opportunities like this come along once in a career, if you’re lucky. I knew that the action and set pieces, the epic scope of the story, could make a visually stunning film, but the element that appealed to me most was the simple story of this lost soul and his best friend, who happens to be a horse. At the heart of this amazing adventure is the story of this man running from himself, not knowing who he is. His ordeal by fire, this impossible 3,000 mile horse race is the catalyst for his rediscovery of who he really is and what his life means.”

He also thought it was important to realize that, well, a horse is a horse.

“In order for the story to work the audience has to care, not only about Frank Hopkins, but about his horse and the relationship that holds them together,” Johnston explains. “I was conscious of the fine line we were walking with that relationship. I wanted to make sure we never humanized the horse, made him ‘superhorse.’ In a way, that’s the easy solution, to push the believable limit of the horse’s intelligence – he could never be Trigger, or Silver, or Lassie. I think it’s more compelling to keep the two main characters within the realms of their species, because the reality you’ve set up will pay off emotionally in the end. We wanted to treat the horse as a partner, but in the way a real horseman in 1890 would do it. There’s no doubt who’s in charge – the horse serves the man – but theirs is a uniquely close and humane relationship.”

Besides pairing man with horse, Hidalgo also pairs Mortensen with screen legend Omar Sharif, who plays Sheikh Riyadh. “We were filming in some of the same locations that he was in forty years ago, filming ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ with Peter O’Toole,” notes Mortensen. “And he’s got a really good memory and a lot of good stories. Wherever we went, he’d have some story of what it was like to film that movie. He’s a fine actor.”

Sharif, who has made no bones about the fact that he did his fair share of bad work for the money, recently came out of a self-imposed retirement when he filmed the critically-acclaimed Monsieur Ibrahim.

“I hadn’t worked since 1996, really, because I wasn’t being offered any roles that truly appealed to me. But I was living in Paris when I found Monsieur Ibrahim, and decided to work again. And while I was working on that film, I was offered this part – the first good part in a major studio film that I’d been offered in a long time. Even though I was in the middle of the other film, I’m glad we found a way to make it work. I’ve enjoyed making this film, working with Viggo and Joe, and I’ve been enthusiastic about this role.”

As producer Casey Silver notes, “We are fortunate to have Omar Sharif in our cast because he is very selective about the roles he takes these days. It speaks well of the script.”