A Mirage in the Desert
Viggo Mortensen's Hidalgo is based on a not-so-true story.
Fusco, also a horseman, has slightly better evidence for his claim that some version of Hopkins the equestrian existed. He researched the Hopkins story in America for over a dozen years, mainly by recording oral histories from members of the Lakota and Blackfeet communities of Sioux Indians (Hopkins said his mother was a Sioux princess) and by seeking out articles—mostly from mid-20th-century equestrian magazines—that recount different aspects of Hopkins' tale. Fusco has since posted some of these articles online; a close look at them reveals that many seem short on primary sources. Fusco says he speaks the Lakota language himself, and that tribal elders told him "the story of the small pinto mustang who had won many long-distance races under a half-breed cowboy." The elders had also heard about the great victory in a long-distance race in Arabia.
Fusco's research is difficult to verify, but some of it does lend credence to the notion that Hopkins was an accomplished rider. CuChullaine O'Reilly claims that the only known image of Hopkins in cowboy attire shows him sitting on a stool, and that "the idea that there is no documented photo of Hopkins in the saddle is staggering." Fusco, however, correctly points to a set of newer images found at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. One of the images shows an older Hopkins seated on top of an unidentified horse.
Fusco likens the controversy to "a shoot-out between posses" in the equestrian community, but the larger question about whether Disney should promote Hidalgo as "based on a true story" remains. To call Hopkins an enthusiast seems fair, but to present him as a real-life champion cowboy is outlandish. It's unclear why Disney felt the need to gussy up its timely epic—the movie is a tale of American triumph on the Arabian peninsula, after all—with the "true story" moniker. Perhaps they were looking for a Seabiscuit competitor. Perhaps it was a misguided attempt to lend their jingoistic narrative some historical heft. But whatever the rationale, the scale of their fabrication would probably have made Hopkins—an enthusiast of horses and tall tales alike—proud.
Anuj Desai is a writer living in New York.
Still from Hidalgo by Richard Cartwright © 2004 Buena Vista Pictures; photograph of Frank T. Hopkins courtesy Vermont Historical Society/Vermont Horse & Briddle Bulletin.