Another film that I’ve been putting off for a few years, not really sure it would be worth watching. It was one of the films that I was put off by the trailer. So over a decade later I’ve sat down and taken in my first Western of the new year, one with a twist…of sorts. I was initially reminded of Bite the Bullet (1975) a desert horse race led by Gene Hackman and the only woman Candice Bergen who are the only ones besides Ben Johnson that I remember on viewing a few years ago. It was another take on the genre that had all but died, needing a long rest like the horses who are sweating onscreen, something that is thankfully not repeated in Hildago (2004) which is another race film but over in the Middle East or Arabia as it was known at the end of the 19th century.
We begin at Wounded Knee (1890) which is shortened to just one grim scene, with time to reenact one photo from the massacre, did we really need to see that? However the more I think about it, it does bring that image to life for another audience who wouldn’t be aware of. For others who are aware of it, new life’s brought to the image – if that’s even possible. We first meet dispatcher Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) who arrives at the Sioux camp just before the orders are carried out, he has a massive sympathy for them and can even live alongside them as we learn when he joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
The authenticity of the West is kept to the very familiar so we have an identifiable world to place the Hopkins in before he jumps onto a boat about 20 minutes in. At this stage it’s about building up the life he will leave for the unknown and the exotic of Arabia. You could say this is where the genre meets Lawrence of Arabia (1962) without Peter O’Toole and the grandeur of David Lean. Sadly there is something from this film for it to live up to the landscape that the film focuses on. One that is in stark contrast to 19th century America which is rising in recognition around the world one of the most powerful nations.
So what is Hildago lacking? First of all I think the lead is mis-cast, Viggo Mortensen who you can see has put some extra weight on for this one does have a screen presence. However he appears to be too easy-going for me here. Playing against type, usually something darker for him to chew on, there’s little for him to really get into. The dialogue lets him down too, he’s just a friendly cowboy on his holidays in Arabia happening to show them how its done in one a very traditional horse race that prides the breeding, training above the rider.
The look of the film is a that of the Western set against the Middle East landscape, you have plenty of sumptuous shots, even trying to replicate Monument Valley or even trying to reference both John Ford and David Lean whose visuals played a prominent role in their stronger films. Here the attempt it valiant but falls short for trying too hard for me and just not letting the landscape inform the photography. The number of silhouettes, and references to Richard Prince are so strong the film is lost to them at times.
Another point, going back to Viggo Mortensen briefly is the revelation he is part Native American, which is another white-washing of the culture for a white audience, which shows how far Hollywood had come even nearly 13 years ago. He doesn’t even look slightly Native American, no attempt to change any features, he here’s an idea, cast an actor with ancestry to a Native nation, just not Johnny Depp after seeing him in The Lone Ranger (2013). I must give Mortensen is dues, he is respectful of those he meets across the Atlantic, his common courtesy of the lost cowboy does him good to Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) an Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) who begin to look past the mystery of the foreigner to see the good within in. Which makes the film too soft in places, there’s no danger posed by him, he’s a laughing-stock of all the other racers, with his mustang, among all the thoroughbreds he’s competing with. He truly is the other, before going all out Native at times.
I must touch briefly on the special effects, which I suppose now look dated, used sparingly through the film. It’s still obvious when they’re being used for dramatic effect, trying to make the Wild West look tame to that of Arabia, just send T.E. Lawrence out there to win them all over. It kind of all distracts from the natural beauty of the desert which is another character here, whose interfered with at times.
I think what saves this film from being offensive, which it isn’t, is the heart within it, not the strongest but there is a strong enough murmur that keeps you watching to see him finish. Which isn’t a forgone conclusion, we know Hildago has it in him to win, yet its the relationship between horse and man whose seen by both audience and the Arabs who accept him as a worthy competitor. Hopkins accepts his own mixed heritage which he accepts, the events of Wounded Knee have clearly effected him to push himself, picking himself up from his time with William Cody (J.K. Simmons) as a drunk. The race is a form of grieving for him, combined with the cowboy image is rather confusing. On the one hand you have the chivalrous American, yet on the other you have the respectful Native which is rare and here not all that entertaining.