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In 1891, wealthy Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) sends his attaché Aziz (Adam Alexi-Malle) to invite American Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), and his mustang, Hidalgo, to enter the "Ocean of Fire," an annual 3,000-mile survival race across the Najd desert region, a race traditionally restricted to pure-bred Arabian horses.Hopkins had been a cowboy and a dispatch rider for the United States government. In this capacity, he had carried a message to the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment, authorizing the attack at Wounded Knee that resulted in massacre of a band of Lakota Sioux.While working as a stunt rider in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, Hopkins and his horse are advertised as "the world's greatest distance horse and rider". The Arabs consider the al-Khamsa line to be the greatest distance horses. Aziz asks the show to stop using that phrase or to allow Hopkins and Hidalgo to enter the race and prove themselves.The American cowboy and his mustang are placed against the world's greatest Arabian horses and Bedouin riders, some of whom are determined to prevent a foreigner - and especially an "impure" horse - from finishing the race. For Hopkins, the Ocean of Fire becomes not only a matter of pride and honor but a race for his survival, as he and his horse attempt the near-impossible desert crossing. He intends to use the purse for saving mustangs. They were important to the Indians, who trained and used them, but the US government was trying to eliminate them to convert the Indians to farming.Throughout the race, competitors try to kill Hopkins and Hidalgo. Chief adversaries include the wealthy, spoiled British aristocrat Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard), who owns a rival Arabian horse and is used to getting her own way. Another is the Sheikh's nephew, who wishes, contrary to his uncle's decree, to marry his cousin, the sheikh's daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson). A spirited girl and a horse-rider in her own right, she is rescued by Hopkins from a raid in which the Sheikh's nephew hoped to force her marriage by dishonoring her. She grows to trust the American. A recurring theme in the film is the fact that Hopkins' father was European American and his mother a member of the Native American Lakota tribe. The Lakota call him "Blue Child" or "Far Rider". As a half-breed, he feels sympathy and pity for his mother's people, who are being driven to extinction by the settlers. However, he does not generally reveal his heritage, especially after the Wounded Knee massacre, for which he feels partly responsible. Jazira compares his relation to his heritage to her desire to avoid wearing a veil, saying that he mustn't "go through life hiding what God made you.... like me."Near the end of the race, Hidalgo is severely injured and Hopkins is dying of thirst. As he hallucinates, by Lakota tradition he sings a prayer to Wakan Tanka as his death song. But Hidalgo struggles up, and Hopkins rides bareback to finish the race, which he wins. After Hopkins returns to the United States, he buys many mustangs which would have been killed by the Government in an effort to control Indians. He releases the horses, including Hidalgo, into the wild.
- Viggo Mortenson, as Frank Hopkins, a great long-distance rider
- Zuleikha Robinson, as Jazira, determined and headstrong daughter of the Sheikh
- Omar Sharif, as Sheikh Riyadh, an insightful leader. He owns and breeds Arabian horses of the Al Khamsa bloodline.
- Louise Lombard, as Lady Anne Davenport, British aristocrat who bets her horse against Hopkins*Adam Alexi-Malle, as Aziz, emissary and the Sheikh's attaché
- Saïd Taghmaoui, as Prince Bin Al Reeh, Jazira's cousin who wishes to marry her by force*Silas Carson, as Katib*Harsh Nayyar, as Yusef
- J.K. Simmons, as Buffalo Bill Cody
- Adoni Maropis, as Sakr
- Victor Talmadge, as Rau Rasmussen
- Peter Mensah, as Jaffa, Jazira's personal guard
- Joshua Wolf Coleman, as The Kurd
- Franky Mwangi, as Slave Boy
- Floyd Red Crow Westerman, as Chief Eagle Horn, a member of Hopkins' Lakota nation, performing with him in the Wild West Show
- Elizabeth Berridge, as Annie Oakley
- C. Thomas Howell, as Preston Webb
- David Midthunder, as Black Coyote
- Malcolm McDowell, as Major Davenport (uncredited)
Fact and fiction
The Native American historian Vine Deloria questioned Hopkins' claims of Lakota ancestry.Based on Hopkins' account of his mixed-race ancestry, the movie production employed Lakota historians, medicine men, and tribal leaders to be on set during every aspect of representing their culture. Many of the same Ghost Dancers who reenact the sacred ceremony of 1890 in Hidalgo had participated in the film Thunderheart (1992) and the mini-series Dreamkeeper, both written by Fusco. The screenwriter was adopted as a relative of the Oglala Nation in a Hunkyapi ceremony (Making of Relatives) on September 3, 1989 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.Because the Disney Corporation marketed the movie as a true story, some historians criticized it both because of the legendary status of Hopkins' claims and for its divergence from his accounts. They contend many of the events, especially the featured race, never took place. Historians of distance riding said that most of Hopkins' claims as depicted in the film, including the race, have been 'tall tales' or hoaxes.The film says that descendants of the horse Hidalgo, for which the movie was named, live among the Gilbert Jones herd of Spanish Mustangs on Blackjack Mountain in Oklahoma. By Hopkins' original account, he decided to leave his horse in Arabia after the race.In 2006, John Fusco, the screenwriter of Hidalgo, responded to criticism about the factual basis of the film. He had done research on Hopkins for years and said that he used parts of Hopkins' 1891 desert memoirs (unpublished during the rider's lifetime) and "heightened the 'Based On' story to create an entertaining theatrical film." He held that the story of the man and his horse is true. Fusco offered quotes from surviving friends of Hopkins, notably former distance riders Walt and Edith Pyle, and Lt Col William Zimmerman, along with information found in horse history texts, as verification.According to the Longriders Guild, the Yemen Government, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabian Government say officially that there has never been an "Ocean of Fire" race. Hopkins never named the event; he referred to it in his writings as an annual ceremonial ride in the region. According to the Arab historian Dr. Awad al-Badi, such a lengthy race was impossible. He said,"There is no record or reference to Hopkins with or without his mustangs ever having set foot on Arabian soil. The idea of a historic long-distance Arab horse race is pure nonsense and flies against all reason. Such an event in Arabia any time in the past is impossible simply from a technical, logistical, cultural and geopolitical point of view. It has never been part of our rich traditions and equestrian heritage."
- John Fusco won the Spur Award for Best Western Drama Script; most of the plot of Hidalgo was not set in the American West but featured an American cowboy figure.
- US Gross Domestic Takings: US$ 67,303,450
- Other International Takings: $40,800,000
- Gross Worldwide Takings: $108,103,450