Pauline Kael called the western an inherently “hypocritical form.” Indeed, traditional westerns tend to mythologize a past that contradicts the present, and revisionist exercises reaffirm the moral certainty and false history they set out to deconstruct. A hybrid of both traditional and revisionist contradictions, horse-infatuated Hidalgo is, to borrow from one of its own metaphors, an impure breed. The movie believes in its rugged individualist morality—embodied by a strapping Viggo Mortensen as half-Sioux, very sad horseman Frank T. Hopkins—while sympathizing with its martyr Native Americans, whose off-screen annihilation is meant to be compensated for by the movie’s final widescreen images of hills covered in emancipated horses.
Orientalist pageantry makes a timely backdrop for a deadly horse race across the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Iraq. With Omar Sharif tepidly hamming an effacement of his Lawrence of Arabia insurgent, the screwball antics recall Cannonball Run more than David Lean. In Robert Altman’s sludgy McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a real snowstorm purges the western gunfight of choreography and clarity, but Hidalgo is content to drop CGI snowflakes onto its bloodless, historically inaccurate re-creation of the Sioux massacre at Wounded Knee Creek. It flirts with Scream-style metaconversation, but Hidalgo shows no conviction for revisionism. As the hero assures his anxious titular equestrian: “It’s all for show.”