• Golden Globe Awards

Oral History: Viggo Mortensen on Hidalgo, Horses and Westerns

Viggo Mortensen spoke with HFPA journalists in 2002 on the set of Hidalgo. He was working on the adventure film about the legend of Frank Hopkins, who rode his mustang Hidalgo in the “Ocean of Fire” 3,000-mile endurance race of 1891 against Bedouins riding pure-bred Arabian horses in the Najid desert of Saudi Arabia.
“Frank Hopkins is at a low point mentally, spiritually, emotionally, even after being impressive in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show as “the world’s greatest endurance horse rider.” For him this is not what he would have imagined himself doing, so he’s oblivious during this period, and when he is invited to this race, he’s reluctant to go.”
“And where Hopkins goes to take up this challenge is to the Middle East. It’s interesting to be part of a story that is based on real events, particularly because of the situation the world is in now. This movie is not about an American who goes abroad to show people how things are done, he goes somewhere far away, unimaginable to him, and he learns something about those places and, most importantly, he learns tough lessons about himself.”
“Hidalgo is a western in the same sense that Dances with Wolves by Kevin Costner is a western, in that most of the people in the story are not White men, and you learn something about a different culture. What really drew me to it is the fact that the Arabic characters speak their language and the Lakota people too, the Native American language is spoken. So, a lot of care went into making that accurate, there was a concern to get that right, which is unusual and I like that.”
“We lived on a farm in Argentina for a while, until I was about 11 so I rode horses bareback a lot when I was little. The saddles were different, a sheepskin basically, but the bridles and the riding style were more or less the same. So I have good memories about being there and riding was fun. But it doesn’t matter whether you’re raised in Argentina or Texas or New York, all kids naturally play those games of being cowboys and Indians.”
Screenwriter John Fusco and director Joe Johnston added:
“The Spanish Mustang has a heart that’s half a size larger than a horse of comparable size, so it pumps more oxygen to the body. They have feet that don’t need to be shod. They were the horses that made the American Indian the finest light cavalry in the world, they could go 100 miles in a day and be fresh the next morning. So the Arabian horses do meet their match in the breed of a Spanish horse. And if you look at the history of that breed, they trace back to the Barbary Coast of North Africa and to the Iberian Peninsula of Spain, they come from similar breeding in many ways, so you could say that for Hidalgo returning to that desert was in his DNA.”