American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Hidalgo" is the kind of movie Hollywood has almost become too jaundiced to make anymore. Bold, exuberant and swashbuckling, it has the purity and simplicity of something Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn might have bounded through. Modern movies that attempt the adventure genre usually feel they have to tart it up, so in "Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl," which once would have been played straight, we get animated cadavers and Johnny Depp channeling Keith Richards. Well, OK, "Pirates" was fun, but "Hidalgo" is a throwback to a more innocent time when heroes and their horses risked everything just because life was so damned boring in the slow lane.
The movie is a completely fictionalized version of the life of a real cowboy named Frank T. Hopkins; a moment's research on the Web will suggest that an accurate portrait of his life would have been much more brief and very depressing. But never mind. Let us assume, as the movie does, that Hopkins was a half-Indian cowboy who bonded with an uncommonly talented mustang pony named Hidalgo. And that after he grew drunk and morose while laboring in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, he risked everything to travel to the Saudi desert and enter the "Ocean of Fire," a legendary race across the sands for a $10,000 prize.
Hopkins is played by Viggo Mortensen, fresh from "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," as a bronzed, lean loner who (if I guess right) enters the race as much for the sake of his horse as for the prize. He respects and loves Hidalgo, especially after the scornful Arab riders scoff at the notion that a mixed-breed mustang could challenge their desert stallions with their ancient lineages. Of course Hopkins is a half-breed, too, and so we're dealing with issues here.
The race is so grueling that many men and horses die, and some are murdered by their rivals. Hopkins functions in this world like a duck in a shooting gallery. When he is discovered in the tent of the beautiful princess Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), he is brought before her father, a powerful sheik (Omar Sharif) and threatened with the loss of that possession he would least like to part with, even more than his horse. But then, in the kind of development that sophisticates will deplore but true children of the movies will treasure, his manhood is spared when the sheik discovers that Hopkins knew -- actually worked with, and spoke with, and could tell stories about! -- that greatest of all men, that paragon of the sheik's favorite pulp magazines, Buffalo Bill!