Tuesday, 24 January 2012

"Hidalgo" on BLU RAY. A Review Of The 2004 Film Now On A 2008 BLU RAY.

"…Lost The Race…But Won A Friend…"


For such a huge production piece - Joe Johnston's expertly directed "Hidalgo" seems to have eluded everybody. A sort of "Little Big Man" meets "Lawrence Of Arabia" hybrid - it garnished favourable reviews on release in early 2004 and a cult following on DVD later that year. It was even name-checked in the back pages of Leonard Maltin's Annual Movie Guide as a 'favorite'.

Well - I'd argue that it's time to mount your saddlebags once again folks and get some serious hot sand on your laser beams - because "Hidalgo" has very definitely been given a whole new lease of life on this beautifully transferred 2008 BLU RAY reissue...

Loosely based on the life of Frank Thomas Hopkins (played by Viggo Mortensen) and his fast-and-strong horse - the Spanish Mustang "Hidalgo" - John Fusco's screenplay spruces up his tale of daring-do a great deal (to some controversy it has to be said). Frank is initially presented to us as a repeated long-distance race winner as well as a dispatch rider for the less-than-chivalrous US Cavalry. Born of a Native Indian mother and European-American father, they named their 'half caste' son "Blue Child". But at the beginning of the movie (and although he speaks their tongue and loves their way of life) - we find Frank rather shamefully hiding what's in his blood and heart.

Then after witnessing the appalling aftermath of Wounded Knee (a massacre of defenceless Lakota Sioux Indians in South Dakota) - we move forward in time to find Frank pasty-faced and broken. Riding around on his famous steed, he's acting out Cowboys and Indians games for boorish patrons in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Drunk most of the time - Frank is little more than a circus clown - and kept in check by the generosity of the famous marksman (the ever wonderful J.K. Simmons plays Bill Cody). But like Chief Eagle Horn who walks into the centre of the big top every afternoon and is pelted with rotten food and boos - Frank feels old before his time and permanently humiliated.

But an olive branch comes in the shape of a visiting Arab and Chinaman. Lured by a hefty purse and a need to redeem himself - Frank agrees to journey into "The Ocean Of Fire" - an endurance horserace in the Middle East which dates back it's history a full 1000 years. Crossing scorched desert and jagged limestone for nearly 70 days - the race covers a staggering 3000-miles between Aden and Syria - eventually arriving at the Arabian Sea. With casualties lost to sandstorms, quicksand and plagues of locusts - only the strongest riders and the purest of steeds will survive. So little is expected of the Western 'Cowboy' and his Halfbreed.

Along the way Frank acquires a goat-herder and water-fetching boy as his "Hidalgo" team, fascinates a feisty daughter who longs to ride alongside the men as their equal (Zuleikha Robinson), dodges a scheming English lady who wants the win the race to acquire the sacred Al-Hattal horse bloodline (Louise Lombard), swaps swords and bullets with a villainous nephew (Said Taghmaouri) and hobnobs with an all-powerful Sheikh (a superb turn by Omar Sharif) who is sceptical at first of the 'far rider' but grows to admire and even revere the gritty and tenacious American. And of course the film has two major pluses - Mortensen and his craggy features filling the whole screen with an everyman quality that is very smart casting indeed. And the horses themselves - beautiful and majestic creatures - and almost telepathic in their symbiosis with their riders. And on the story goes...through all manner of mental and physical trials...to end up back again in Frontierland USA where wild horses run the plains...like a free-spirit should...

PICTURE - the film's default aspect is 2.40:1 - so there are bars at the top and bottom of the picture - but even when stretched to Smart or Full Aspect mode - the print is rarely anything less than a desert swoon. So many great images - the CGI of the "City Of Paris" ship arriving in Arabia is beautifully rendered - the dawn and dusk over the desert - the up-close shots of Bedouin tents and Arabic clothing - sand-blasted faces and parched lips - all of it - GORGEOUS.

SOUND - audio is equally impressive. When the thundering hooves and the sandstorm comes at you - your viewing room will beg for mercy and be shown none.

The two extras "Sand & Celluloid" and "America's First Horse" are very informative and enjoyable. The first is a behind-the-scenes 'making of' featuring short interviews with Mortensen, the Writer, the Director, Executive Producers, Animal Trainers and Production Design people. Particularly impressive is the entire mud-walled town constructed on site for a fight sequence - and the edible locusts - each of which took 4 hours to create (utterly convincing). 800 horses were brought in to create the charge and race sequences - and wind and dust battered everyone and everything daily. The second feature goes into the Mustang Breed itself and how they were brought to America in 1519 by Cortez and then adopted by the natives as their own 'sacred' partners. Very good indeed...

To sum up - dialogue between Omar Sharif and Viggo Mortensen title this review...and in some ways mark out the history of this criminally ignored nugget.

"Hidalgo" is an excellent 'story' movie and well worth seeking out - especially now that it's been given a format which brings out all that hard work and finally makes it shine.

I may feel the urge to spit on a camel every now and then, but I'm so glad I bought this film...

BLU RAY Specifications:
VIDEO: 1080p High-Definition / 2.40:1
AUDIO: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, French and Spanish
ENHANCED AUDIO: DTS 5.1 French and Spanish, PCM 5.1 English
SUBTITLES: English, English For Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish

"Sand & Celluloid" - A Making of Featurette, Behind The Scenes etc (10 minutes)
"America's First Horse - Hidalgo And The Spanish Mustang" - The Story of Hildago's Ancestors (21 minutes)

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