“A character is highlighted, forged and defined, to some degree, by going through an ordeal. It’s in ordeals and moments of stress, it’s how an individual reacts.”
It’s a relevant starting point – an ordeal that forges and defines the figure who survives it. Transgressing the boundaries of any single subject or moment in time, it’s a classic theme found in countless instances and many forms. Now, it emerges once again with Touchstone Pictures’ “Hidalgo.”
Based on a true story, “Hidalgo” is the epic tale of the famed Western endurance rider Frank T. Hopkins, played by Viggo Mortensen, his wild Spanish Mustang (Hidalgo) and their treacherous ordeal of racing through the “Ocean of Fire,” an ancient 3,000 mile endurance race held annually across the Arabian Desert.
Set in the late 19th century, what unfurls is a simple yet deeply resonating story that is in every instance epic in its locales and intimate in its character identification.
Known across America as “the greatest rider in the world,” Hopkins, who is half Lakota Indian, is devastated by the slaughter of his people during the Battle of Wounded Knee, which a message he couriered by horse to the U.S. troops in charge inadvertently caused.
With only the reputation of his former riding lifestyle intact, Hopkins is relegated to performing re-enactment shows of that very “battle” for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Reduced to alcoholism and presenting fictitious accounts of the tragedy that haunts him, Hopkins’ chance to escape comes when a challenge from Sheikh Riyadh of Arabia (played by the legendary Omar Sharif of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame) invites him to defend his title in the world’s most punishing endurance race known to man, “The Ocean of Fire.”
Accepting the challenge voluntarily, Hopkins travels to the East, accepting by default the position of being the first Westerner to ever attempt the race against the Arabian elite who have raced it for more than three millennia.
The Hatchet caught up with Mortensen during a recent visit to Washington to shed some light on the legend of Hopkins, his life in the Arabian Desert and the alleged claims that the film depicts non-Western culture unfairly.
Respectfully representing the East:
Soon after the film’s existence was made public, critics came forward implying it was slanderous toward Arab and Native American cultures by representing them as inferior.
“Certain articles have been printed that have, quote unquote, been ‘outing’ this story of Frank Hopkins as a fraud, giving the implication that it was going to be disrespectful to Arab and Islamic culture,” Mortensen said. “These are people not seeing a movie. Likewise, I’ve seen some very responsible writers, open-minded people, who have implied or just outright said or written that ‘this story really is a travesty,’ that Frank Hopkins had ‘no relation to Lakota people.’ This is people not seeing a movie and not doing any research whatsoever.”
Addressing the critiques, Mortensen defended the film as one that “treats the cultures in a respectful and dignified way.”
“It’s understandable that people leap to such conclusions before seeing it,” Mortensen said. “Mainly because the history of the big-budget Hollywood fare has been one in which you’ve seen Native American culture, Islam and Arabs, at the very least misrepresented … I knew this wasn’t a story of an American deciding to go and conquer or educate (Arabs) about the ‘right way’ or the ‘American way’ of doing things.
“This is a guy who is invited, goes out on a dare really, doesn’t know what he’s getting into and makes up for his ignorance by being curious, which is the first step to being open-minded (while) also finding out about yourself and others.”
Frank Hopkins as an epic hero:
In the vein of epic cinema, “Hidalgo” focuses on Hopkins as a hero in the most classic sense. Presented as a living legend who must survive a grueling physical and mental journey, Hopkins’ bravery must hold up against the psychological torment of his past and the physical punishment of the present.
“This is kind of a classic that represents the classic hero’s journey,” Mortensen said. “That kind of story that Josef Campbell and others have written and spoken so eloquently about, where a challenge is presented to an individual not obligated to accept it necessarily, but says, ‘yes’ to this call to adventure. You don’t know how you’re going to get through it, but the lessons learned end up coming from the process of going through it.”
In leaving the West, Hopkins also finds himself immersed in customs he knows little about. In America he was a respected legend, but in the East he is an infidel riding an inferior horse. Here, a hero is seen to transgress the context of culture. True heroes move beyond borders and social custom, as their worth is determined by great perseverance not only amid immense physical strain, but also in their desire to learn and not destroy what they don’t understand.
“(Hopkins) is a hero in the same sense you are if you make a conscious effort to understand your place in the world and understand your connection to others,” Mortensen said. “It makes a lot of sense to try to find common ground with other people. You can ignore that fact your whole life and say, ‘Well I’m God’s chosen people’ … (But) as soon as you separate yourself, you’re depriving yourself of the experience of getting to know other people and, therefore, getting to know yourself.”
Mortensen continued, adding that as far as the hero story goes, “it doesn’t matter what culture you live in. It’s the same story you get all the time, it just depends on how well you tell it. In the same sense, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a retelling of Tolkien’s story, which is a retelling of fragments of many different stories, all of which you don’t need to know because they’re part of our psyche as people.
(Viggo’s words on the Arabian Desert):
“(I’d) walk or ride out into the desert at the end of the day when all the horses would be put to rest and it would be all stars, sky and sand, as far as you can see. On the one hand it shows you how isolated and insignificant you are as an individual, but on the other hand, it tells you how connected you are being out in the middle of the desert together … You help each other and race, religion, nationality, age it all kind of goes out the window. It’s the great leveler, nature and disaster. It’s in the ordeal, whatever the ordeal is. Everything becomes crystal clear for that moment and you get a certain amount of clarity and purity. It’s going to be temporary, probably, but for as long as the event lasts or the immediate memory of it lasts, a certain amount of clarity about who you are and what your connection is to other people occurs. Then (after its over), you sort of get back into the routine of your life. But every once in a while you have one of these ordeals, and I think people, to some degree, consciously or otherwise, go to movies looking for a taste of that, a story about an ordeal. I think this is what (“Hidalgo”) at heart is, a call to adventure. It allows you, through someone else’s eyes, to participate, to relate and think about your own life.