Hidalgo happened when someone at Disney stumbled on the tall tales of professional circus horseman and fabulist Frank Hopkins and decided to make them a Viggo Mortensen vehicle. Hidalgo takes Hopkins (Mortensen), the drunken, self-destructive protagonist, from a spiraling existence working in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to competing in the Arabian desert, in a 3000-mile desert race held by Sheikh al-Riyadh (Sharif). This all sounds wonderful… except Hopkins probably made the whole thing up—even his employment with Buffalo Bill—so one should take anything this film says about Arabs with an ocean of salt.
|Pictured: a |
Our first glimpse of Hidalgo’s Arab cast comes in the form of Aziz (Adam Alexi-Malle), attaché to Sheikh al-Riyadh. Aziz looks like your stereotypical Arab oil sheikh: corpulent; reticent; supercilious; smug; casually sexist. He even whips out a khanjar and threatens to kill anyone who says anything that even sounds like an insult. To further cement Aziz as morally suspect, Hopkins later tortures him for information… You might guess why I don’t like the sight of a cowboy torturing an Arab in a 2004 film.
|“Ugh! Fine! I'll get up and move the plot along! Gosh!!”|
When we finally meet al-Riyadh, Sharif's preternatural likability hooks us. One almost overlooks the character’s casual sexism and xenophobia. In private, he dotes on his daughter, Princess Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson)… only to later refer to her as “lowly” and unworthy of attention in front of company. He makes statements implying he views wives as property of husbands (which contradicts Quranic statements on marriage) and brags about making his wives sleep in stable tents on cold nights to make his horse more comfortable.
|Sheikh al-Riyadh forgets that when his wives have to sleep in a stall, they’ll make him sleep on the couch.|
|The film's healthiest marriage takes place between Hopkins and Hidalgo.|
(Spoiler: Hopkins takes Hidalgo's surname.)
Once Hopkins arrives in Arabia (the film makes almost no regional distinctions, and the stated race course makes no geographic sense), he looks with appropriate scorn towards the slave trade… but he buys a young boy anyway. The boy (Franky Mwangi) tries to escape and realizes he has no place to go, so he decides to willingly serve Hopkins. We never even learn the boy’s name! So the film doesn’t even make a committal statement against slavery. The film also depicts every owned slave—all of whom have darker skin than even the free black characters—as inexplicably content with their lot in life (Disney learned nothing from Song of the South) and willing to fight and die for their masters without hesitation. On the other hand, Jazira's remonstrance against marrying her cousin lies in her fear that he will effectively enslave her. Black slaves everywhere? No big deal. A non-black woman describes her upcoming marriage as possible slavery? This will not stand!!!
|Let me reiterate… This boy. Becomes the property. Of the good guy. In a Disney movie. From just 11 years ago.|
|“Have you met the sheikh yet? Yeah, he almost cut off my hands in a fit of rage because I stole some milk from him. You'll love him!”|
Halfway through the film, al-Riyadh tries to castrate Hopkins and flog Jazira because the sheikh incorrectly believes Hopkins made sexual advances on Jazira. Hopkins eventually gets out of this by pulling a Scheherazade and distracting al-Riyadh with wild west stories. This seems doubly appropriate: an Arabian Nights reference delivered via a character whose real-life counterpart probably fabricated this entire story.
|Sadly, Hidalgo has few Arabian nights. But it does have this cool Arabian sunset.|
|Indian-English actor Silas Carson rocks a cool Arab-beard.|
If anyone wants to spread an “Arabs have awesome beards” stereotype, I can live with that.