Old-fashioned boys' adventure yarn centered upon an increasingly familiar figure, a disillusioned, guilt-ridden 19th-century soldier hero. With Viggo Mortensen riding high at the moment off the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Buena Vista should generate brawny returns for this unabashedly retro offering.

This year’s little-horse-that-could movie, “Hidalgo” tells an old-fashioned boys’ adventure yarn in an equally old-fashioned way. Centered upon an increasingly familiar figure, a disillusioned, guilt-ridden 19th-century soldier hero straight out of “Dances With Wolves” and “The Last Samurai,” this wide-open-spaces actioner provides a fanciful, melodramatic rendering of an episode in the life of real-life cowboy Frank T. Hopkins, the first Westerner to participate in a punishing 3,000-mile endurance race across the Arabian desert in the 1890s. With Viggo Mortensen riding high at the moment off the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Buena Vista should generate brawny returns for this unabashedly retro offering.

Although screenwriter and wild horse preservationist John Fusco (the “Young Guns” pics, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”) reportedly did 12 years of research on Hopkins, who died at 86 in 1951, pic feels much less like a slice of history than like a large hunk of Hollywood hokum from the ’40s or ’50s. With its sinister Arabs, an unusually forthright veiled woman, snooty Brits and an untamed, impossibly handsome American loner standing head and shoulders above them all, it’s as if the past five decades, much less the last 2½ years, had never happened. Use of antiquated archetypes will prove refreshing to some and rather weird to others. (The race leads to, of all places, Iraq.)

Opening reel plays virtually like a parallel version of “The Last Samurai,” as Hopkins (Mortensen), disillusioned with frontier life after the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, ends up back East drunkenly re-enacting U.S. cavalry victories in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West shows. Catching his act is Aziz (a haughty Adam Alexi-Malle), who invites Hopkins to compete in the Ocean of Fire race on behalf of organizer Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif).

With nothing else in particular to do and attracted by the large cash prize, Hopkins, whose honorary Indian name is “Far Rider,” hops on a boat with little idea what awaits him. Startled to find slavery still in practice in Arabia, he also learns that about half of the race’s participants annually die in the course of it. Not only is the interloper given a cold shoulder by some of the native riders, his beloved mustang Hidalgo is ridiculed for its puny size and the “impurity” of its bloodlines, a matter of supreme importance to the Bedouin breeders.

Sheikh Riyadh, however, is not only cordial to the foreigner but proves to be a big fan of Wild West adventures. His biggest worry is his daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), a young horse enthusiast chafing at the societal and religious restrictions on her and rather too anxious to commune with the blond infidel from across the sea.

Then there’s Katib (Silas Carson), the sheikh’s untrustworthy nephew, who tries to sabotage his uncle and Hopkins at every turn, and Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard), an aristocratic English Arabist with a horse in the race who turns against Hopkins when he spurns her advances. (An unbilled Malcolm McDowell has one scene as Lord Davenport.)

With spectacular bluffs, sand dunes and vast expanses of arid land as backdrops, the race itself has an intrinsic visual appeal, even if the mad dash at the start soon settles down into a sun-baked stagger. A bit of expository info about basic details — how the men and horses are meant to eat and drink, if there are established trails and so on — would have helped, but Fusco breaks up the monotony of the trudge by injecting a midway sideshow involving Katib’s kidnapping of Jazira and some resulting Indiana Jones-like derring-do from Hopkins.

Other obstacles put in Far Rider’s way include a couple of major CGI-generated tempests — one a “Mummy”-like sandstorm tidal wave, another a locust plague courtesy of “The Good Earth,” an ambush worthy of a hundred Westerns, a sand trap with sharpened bamboo poles lying in wait within and even unleashed leopards with a taste for horses. But nothing can stop Hopkins and his diminutive mustang, who makes like Seabiscuit when he sees the finish line dead ahead.

Strapping and laconic as all get-out, Mortensen cuts a fine figure riding across director Joe Johnston and lenser Shelly Johnson’s expansive desert compositions, although he is almost comically short of words at times, and hard to make out at others; the character’s reticence is sometimes hard to separate from the actor’s sometimes perceptible reluctance to fully step up and seize this iconic brand of role.

Sharif is fully and charmingly at ease as a sophisticated man of tradition who has his own burdens to bear; it’s a pleasure to see the actor back on locations in and around Ouarzazate, Morocco, 40 years after “Lawrence of Arabia,” as well as in a sumptuously produced studio feature for the first time in ages. (A fair amount of his dialogue is in Arabic.)

Mortensen and Sharif are far from being the only exceptionally handsome members of the cast, as most of the supporting players — including Carson, Said Taghmaoui as Riyadh’s rider, Joshua Wolf Coleman as Lady Davenport’s representative, Peter Mesah as a warrior guard and Adoni Maropis as another local participant — are dashingly photogenic.

With lensing also having been done in Montana, South Dakota and California, physical production is strong, if not overly opulent. James Newton Howard’s busy score could have gone further to create a more unusual aural accompaniment to the story, although the use of “distant drums” in the arrangements echo a similar motif in Maurice Jarre’s famous work for “Lawrence.”

Hidalgo

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Casey Silver production. Produced by Silver. Executive producer, Don Zepfel. Co-producer (Morocco), Patricia Carr. Directed by Joe Johnston. Screenplay, John Fusco.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Shelly Johnson; editor, Robert Dalva; music, James Newton Howard; production designer, Barry Robison; supervising art directors, Troy Sizemore, Aurelio Crugnola (Morocco); art directors, Kevin Constant, Luigi Quintili (Morocco); set designers, Gregory Hooper, Joshua Lusby, Dean Wolcott; set decorator, Garrett Lewis; costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), Mary H. Ellis; supervising sound editor, Howell Gibbens; visual effects supervisor, Tim Alexander; special visual effects and animation, Industrial Light & Magic; visual effects producer, Ginger Theisen; associate producers, Chris Salvaterra, Julie Hanks, Nate Bruckner; assistant director, William M. Elvin; second unit director, Alexander Witt; second unit camera, Kevin McKnight; stunt coordinator, Pat Romano; casting, Nancy Foy. Reviewed at Walt Disney Studios, Burbank, Feb. 27, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 135 MIN.

With

Frank T. Hopkins - Viggo Mortensen Sheikh Riyadh - Omar Sharif Lady Anne Davenport - Louise Lombard Prince Bin Al Reeh - Said Taghmaoui Jaffa - Peter Mensah Buffalo Bill Cody - J.K. Simmons Jazira - Zuleikha Robinson Aziz - Adam Alexi-Malle Katib - Silas Carson Sakr - Adoni Maropis Yusef - Harsh Nayyar Chief Eagle Horn - Floyd Red Crow Westerman Annie Oakley - Elizabeth Berridge Rau Rasmussen - Victor Talmadge Texas Jack - Frank Collison Nate Salisbury - Jerry Hardin Preston Webb - C. Thomas Howell
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