Four-Legged Best Friend
How a horse becomes the central character in Hidalgo
Westerns are a classic genre. When one thinks of a western, one could imagine sunsets, cowboys and cowboy hats, mountain ranges, long stretches of prairie, harmonica music… but would one expect to find that in a film set in the Middle East? I didn’t. When I first saw Hidalgo, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would take the form of a classic western, and in essence the story would seem to follow the pattern. There are villainous enemies who scheme and plot for the heroes’ destruction, friends who come to see their true worth and value, and enough close calls to satisfy any thrill seeker. There is even a damsel in distress, although she is able to hold her own against the male protagonists and the villains who put her in distress in the first place. But the classic western mold is broken when the story is taken from the western plains of America to the Arabian desert. From then on the story takes another turn, changing in feel from The Lone Ranger to Lawrence of Arabia.
For those who are unfamiliar with the movie, the story is about Frank Hopkins, a former cowboy and dispatch rider turned stunt rider in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show. Famous for winning many long distance races, Frank and his mustang Hidalgo are invited by a man named Sheikh Riyadh to enter the Ocean of Fire, a three thousand mile race across the Arabian desert, usually restricted to purebred Arabian horses. When Frank and Hidalgo arrive in the Middle East, they discover a hostile land filled with dangers. The other riders in the race are determined to prevent a foreigner from winning, certain that having an “impure” horse and rider as victors would dishonor the race. As a result, Frank and Hidalgo’s journey becomes one of survival, against the elements and their human enemies. Along the way they become involved in many adventures, including rescuing Sheikh Riyadh’s daughter Jazria from raiders. Frank and Hidalgo have many close calls during the Ocean of Fire, but end victorious, thanks to their endurance and determination.
In spite of all the human drama that goes on in this film, Hidalgo remains the central character. Most of the plot revolves around this extraordinary horse. His courage, fortitude and perseverance match that of his human rider and drive the pair towards victory. Hidalgo also has a personality and a mind of his own. When you have a character that cannot speak or move like a human, the emotion must be shown in other ways. In the movie this is shown through simple gestures: a whinny, a grunt, a sideways glance, a hoof pawing the ground, or even an eye roll. Whenever Frank gets into a questionable situation, usually involving a woman, Hidalgo isn’t shy about sharing his mind. Hidalgo interacts with Frank, responding to his words, actions and deeds.
Many scenes display the camaraderie between Frank and Hidalgo, but there are a few that I’d like to mention because they show just how close the pair is. In one scene, Frank wakes up to discover that Hidalgo isn’t in his usual place, tied up next to his tent. The night before Frank had been debating whether or not to pull out of the race, thinking that they were too worn down from the previous weeks to have a chance of lasting the rest of the way. When Frank goes to find Hidalgo, he finds the mustang standing at the starting line, waiting to begin the race again. Hidalgo gives Frank a meaningful look, saying through his eyes that he is ready and willing.
In a scene later in the film, Hidalgo proves his resilience again when the pair is in the most desperate situation yet. Suffering from thirst, heat exhaustion, and a serious injury, Hidalgo collapses on the desert floor, forcing Frank to consider shooting him and ending his pain. Frank almost pulls the trigger, but isn’t able to do the deed. Sitting on the desert floor singing an Indian chant and surrounded by mirages, Frank nearly gives in to his own suffering. But when he turns around, Frank is amazed to discover Hidalgo standing on his feet, giving him a look as if to say, “Let’s finish this, we are so close.” Frank remounts his mustang and the pair race to the finish line, giving every ounce of their strength to win it.
Hidalgo may only be a horse, but without him Frank would have given up or given in long before the race’s completion. Hidalgo proves that an animal can take as much of an active part in the story as the human characters, and can display as much courage as the hero. It’s no wonder that the movie is named after him.
(Formerly published in the Costume Chronicles - www.costumechronicles.com)