Thursday, January 29, 2004

January 29, 2004
I’ve seen the new Old West and it’s in the Mideast. Last night at Fashion Square, Touchstone ran a sneak preview of Hidalgo (due out March 5).

What a wild ride! The horse racing sequences are very powerful, with thundering hooves and dangerous looking tracking shots. Not since Man From Snowy River has The Horse got such loving, glorious attention.

The big surprise, at least to me, is that the opening sequences which take place in the actual American West were the least interesting to me. True, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was lovingly reproduced right down to the medals on Annie Oakley’s chest, but for me it didn’t quite translate into anything compelling.

And I especially disliked the revisionist take on Wounded Knee where the famous photo of an Indian casualty frozen in place is recreated for the movie, but the corpse is given a white flag to hold as a kind of extra exclamation point (like it needed it). The movie totally sidesteps the fact that U.S. soldiers took some 40 casualties from the “surrendering” Sioux at Wounded Knee.

Of course, this reveals my own prejudices and pet peeves about modern Westerns and begs the question, “Is it even possible for history nuts to enjoy any portrayal of their Beloved West?” And my answer to that question is: “Either blow it up or get it right.”

Ironically, Hidalgo doesn’t really take off until the Cowboy, Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), lands in the Arabian desert for the big endurance race.

The leap of imagination by screenwriter John Fusco (Young Guns, Spirit Stallion of The Cimarron), in taking an American Cowboy, raised by Indians, and throwing him into a parallel universe of the Old Mideast is chancy, but it works. Two horse cultures (Native American and the Bedouin) are juxtaposed, or interchanged and it’s a perfect fit, at least in terms of movie plotting and dynamics. On the negative side, there is already outrage from some Arab circles about the scene where a native rider stabs and kills his horse when it can’t continue.

Personally, I really loved the Arab old school style and garb. The billowing tunics and exotic saddlery of the galloping riders was way cool. But I’d be willing to bet one of my hats there will be Arab history buffs bemoaning the inaccurate head dresses and Arabian horse gear. Alas, we each have our areas of expertise, and heaven help Hollywood when they enter our cantankerous domains.

The metaphor of an American Cowboy dispensing Western style justice in the Mideast (Iraq is in the race path!) is at times wince worthy. When our cowboy hero grinds a spur on the cheek of a prone, traitorous Arab, I kept looking for the spider hole.

In spite of my sniping, the movie is ultimately successful and makes a pretty strong case that the Cowboy hero has outgrown the actual physical confines of the American West. This is not a new idea and can be traced all the way back to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969). That was the first movie where “cowboys” left the actual Old West, in that case exporting their robbery techniques to South America. This caused consternation at the studio because the execs wondered aloud: “Can you leave the Old West in a Western?” After all, John Wayne and Roy Rogers had never left the Old West.

With the recent Shanghai Noon and this year’s Last Samurai, the story of a U.S. cavalry officer who turns Japanese, the idea appears to be a trend.

If you read True West magazine you know the real Frank T. Hopkins (on which Hidalgo is allegedly based) was more or less a blowhard and a fraud (there is no proof he was ever in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, or that he ever won a long distance race), but it really doesn’t matter. The movie is a tall tale more in the mode of Indiana Jones (who I suppose was based on some authentic archeologist/adventurer, but so what?) Hidalgo plays out like a big screen adventure and the audience I saw it with clapped at the end (always a good sign).

My prediction is Hidalgo will ride out the heat and be a hit.

“You may easily play a joke on a man who likes to argue -- agree with him.”
—Edgar Watson Howe

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post your comments