History in the Movies: DVD release

Viggo Mortensen, lead actor in Hidalgo.

Finding the History in “Hidalgo’s” tall tale.

By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.

There’s a great deal to like about “Hidalgo,” Disney’s horse adventure film set in 1890. Besides an exciting story beautifully shot, there’s the charming Viggo Mortensen, the inimitable Omar Sharif and Hidalgo himself, one of the most engaging animal characters outside a Disney cartoon.

And did I mention Viggo Mortensen?

But is there actual history in “Hidalgo?” Disney wanted us to think so, marketing the film as “based on a true story.” This, despite the fact that many scholars have scoffed at the veracity of Frank Hopkins’ memoirs on which the film is based.

Hopkins’ stories, first published in the 1930s, spin fantastic tales of his winning hundreds of long distance horse races (never losing one!), and starring in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for decades. The lack of any corroborating evidence for his exploits, however, makes it pretty certain that most of his adventures were confined to his amazingly vivid imagination.

Yet, despite the tale being more tall than true, I still found some interesting history in “Hidalgo.” Here are my answers to some questions viewers may have.

Q. The film centers on Hopkins racing his horse, Hidalgo, in a 3,000-mile “Ocean of Fire” endurance race held in Arabia. Was that real?

A. Probably not. Scholars haven’t been able to find any evidence that such a race took place in 1890 or any other year. Hopkins seems to have invented this entertaining tale out of whole cloth.

Q. But were endurance horse races popular in America in the late 19th century?

A. Yes, and the popularity of such races, some more than 1,000-miles long, is one example of the man-conquering-nature theme of the era. During these years, climbers went after the highest peaks, men in dogsleds took on the poles and aviators defied gravity. And audiences loved it, turning out in huge crowds to hear of the exploits of daring explorers who had challenged nature, and won. No wonder Frank Hopkins liked to imagine himself as one of them.

Q. An early scene in the movie shows the U.S. Army massacring hundreds of Indians. Was that true?

A. The film accurately depicts the 1890 tragedy at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. The Plains Indians were in crisis by 1890. Confined to reservations, and witnessing the systematic extermination of the buffalo by the Army, many Indians in despair embraced the Ghost Dance religion, hoping it would restore their former way of life. Army officials viewed the Ghost Dance ceremonies as threatening, potentially a prelude to an attack. As the film shows, the 7th Cavalry fired into the encamped Indians while disarming them, killing hundreds.

What the film doesn’t show are the many unarmed women and children killed in the massacre, some shot while cowering in ditches. And, as suggested in the film, many soldiers were awarded medals for their “bravery,” in what was long called a “battle.”

Q. Did Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show really feature actual Indians?

A. Another very accurate, and far more cheerful recreation in the film was of William (Buffalo Bill) Cody’s Wild West Show. Wildly popular for years, this touring extravaganza featured real Indians (even Sitting Bull toured with them for a while), authentic cowboys, and famous sharpshooters like Annie Oakley. With its roping, riding, and shooting exhibitions, and its dramatic recreations of the Pony Express, Custer’s Last Stand, buffalo hunts and stagecoach raids, the show established an image of the Wild West for its audiences that endure today.

Q. Were colorful Western characters like Buffalo Bill famous around the world?

A. In a delightful little scene, the Arab sheikh is seen reading a dime-store novel about Buffalo Bill. Cody’s Wild West Show did tour Europe, and books about him were as cheaply made and as widely sold as, say, Harlequin Romance novels. So, it’s a nice touch by the movie, though it’s unknown if any of those novels actually found their way to Arabia.

Q. Did the Army really have a policy of shooting mustangs, as depicted in the film?

A. Yes, mustangs were frequently shot by white men in that era, for sport, or for meat, but mostly because they wanted to keep the large herds of wild horses off their grazing land. Wiry, scrubby and small, the mustang was not seen as a valuable horse by most horsemen.

Interestingly, though, if there had been an “Ocean of Fire” race in Arabia, it’s plausible that a hardy little mustang like Hidalgo, accustomed to life on the open range with little food or water, might have won it.

Q. What’s a good book for more information?

A. A fun one is Joy Kasson’s “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History.”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois, and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at cschultz@stfrancis.edu.