In the wake of Seabiscuit comes another star-studded story of equine heroism. Based on the “incredible true story of the greatest long-distance horse race ever run”, Hidalgo is the epic tale of one man’s journey of personal redemption.
The Ocean of Fire was a 3,000-mile survival race across the Arabian Desert, which was held annually for centuries. It was a challenge restricted to the finest Arabian horses, bred from the purest and noblest lines, and owned by the greatest royal families.
In 1890, for the first time in the race’s history, an American and his horse (Frank T. Hopkins and Hidalgo) were invited by a wealthy Sheikh to participate in the race. A cowboy and his Mustang were to pit their wits and endurance against those of the world’s greatest Arabian horses.
The Ocean of Fire becomes not only a matter of pride and honour, but also a race for survival.
Lord of the rings star, Viggo Mortensen, who plays Frank T. Hopkins, says: “Ultimately, the film is a classic hero’s journey.
“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.”
Producers drew on Rex Peterson’s experience as a trainer. He worked on The Horse Whisperer, Black Beauty and The Black Stallion. Peterson spent three months searching for the equine hero, although ultimately there were five horses playing Hidalgo. A further 800 horses were used in the film as Hidalgo’s Arabian counterparts.
The film is directed by Joe Johnston, who made his name with Jurassic Park and Jumaniji, as well as the more intimate October Sky.
Johnston says: “I was captivated by the character of Frank Hopkins, his partnership with a half-wild Spanish Mustang, and his story of a man coming to terms with his heritage, his denial and ultimate acceptance of who he is.”
But the American Long Riders’ Guild has a different take on the hero. Apparently he was a fraud, and Disney’s representation of Frank Hopkins as the greatest long-distance rider ever is a slap in the face for long-distance riders the world over.
When news of the film became widespread last spring, a team of experts took it upon themselves to ascertain the validity of Disney’s claims.
The upshot? All lies apparently, according to the experts. Hopkins was a counterfeit cowboy and gifted spinner of Old West yarns who lived in the industrial East and worked as a subway tunnel digger, harbor diver and circus horse handler, and even the race itself has been labelled as ‘fantasy’.
Hidalgo’s screenwriter, John Fusco maintains that Hopkins was a genuine hero, and that it is only due to the lack of proper record-keeping at the time that there is no documentation to prove the authenticity of the story.
But Dr. Awad Al-Badi, Director of Research for Islamic Studies in Riyadh said “there is absolutely no record or reference to Hopkins with or without his mustangs ever having set foot on Arabian soil.
“The idea of a historic long distance Arab horse race is pure nonsense and flies against all reason. Such an event in Arabiaany time in the past is impossible simply from a technical, logistical, cultural and geopolitical point of view. This race has never been part of our rich traditions and equestrian heritage.”
The film, which also stars Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson and Malcolm McDowell, is to be released on the 9 April 2004.