Mustang salvo: Horsing around with Frank of Arabia

Not the least of Hidalgo's accomplishments is reducing U.S. involvement in the Middle East to a horse race.

Raising entertainment to an art form, director Joe Johnston imbues this fact-based tall tale with depth and breadth.

The story combines elements of Dances with Wolves, Indiana Jones and Seabiscuit, but the setup is right out of The Last Samurai as a man, disgusted with the army's actions in the Indian wars, drinks heavily and joins a wild West show, then accepts an overseas challenge that teaches him the ways of an exotic culture.

It turns out that Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen, cementing his LOTR popularity as an action hero) is sympathetic to the Native Americans because he's half-Indian himself, and perhaps it's his own mixed blood that makes him appreciate the mustangs the U.S. government wants to eliminate.

As a long-distance rider for the Pony Express, Frank has set cross-country records on his mustang, Hidalgo. This brings him to the attention of an emissary from Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), who sees him in Buffalo Bill's show and invites him to compete in the 3000-mile Ocean of Fire race across the Arabian desert.

The annual competition– with a purse of more than $100,000– involves "100 of the finest and purest Arabian stallions," including the Sheikh's champion, Al-Attal. One horse is English-owned. Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard, a cross between Ann-Margret and Lynn Redgrave) hopes if her mare wins it will get a chance to breed with Al-Attal. On a personal level, she wouldn't mind breeding with Hopkins while her husband (an unbilled cameo by Malcolm McDowell) waits back in port.

If Hidalgo screenwriter John Fusco uses every cliché in the book, it must be a wonderful book. It's amazing to see how many elements he can cram into this story: action-adventure, romance, suspense, humor, politics, and a competitive event. While the race is the main thing, the riders get a day off if they make it to the halfway point (about half of them do), and the halftime show is a whole 'nother movie. (Sorry, no Janet and Justin.)

The Sheikh has a daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), he's trying to marry off to a prince (Saïd Taghmaoui), who would make her his fifth wife, "a slave in his house." A closet horsewoman, Jazira has a lot of smarts and skills her father (whose sons are all dead) secretly admires; but in public, like a one-man Taliban, he forces her to play a traditional woman's role.

When Jazira is caught going to Frank's tent for some after-hours conversation, it puts the American's life in jeopardy. But the Sheikh's evil nephew kidnaps her with Al-Attal as ransom and only Hopkins can save the day.

Once the day is saved, it's back to the race. Even with everything working against Frank (including the fact he didn't get any rest on his day off) his opponents still play dirty.

In addition to the desert vistas, fans of big-screen movies get to enjoy effects sequences of a sandstorm in the form of a veritable tidal wave, and a swarm of locusts Jazira describes as a gift, not a plague.

The heroes and villains of Hidalgo are established early when the assertion, "Mustangs don't belong in races with thoroughbreds" makes Frank fighting mad and puts all of us who feel like mustangs on his side. The whole movie is so pro-mustang, Ford will have to sponsor its eventual telecast!