Is Hidalgo really based on a true story?

What really happened.
March 4 2004 6:27 PM

A Mirage in the Desert

Viggo Mortensen's Hidalgo is based on a not-so-true story.

The movie version of Frank's tall tale
The movie version of Frank's tall tale

In Hidalgo, which opens Friday, Viggo Mortensen plays Frank T. Hopkins, an American cowboy who takes his mustang overseas to compete in the Ocean of Fire, an endurance horse race across thousands of miles of Arabian desert. The trailer bills the Disney/Touchstone movie as an "incredible true story," and the tale of Hopkins' travels is certainly incredible. But is it really true?

Well, there truly was a Frank T. Hopkins. He lived from 1865 to 1951, and in his memoirs, which he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s with his wife Gertrude, he exhibits plenty of cowboy swagger—he calls Buffalo Bill a stinking drunk and Sitting Bull a coward. He also claims that he was a long-distance U.S. Cavalry rider by age 12; the winner of hundreds of long-distance races all across America; a friend of Black Elk; a star in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show for over 30 seasons; and the first American ever to compete in—and win—the Ocean of Fire.

The problem is, each of these claims is demonstrably false. Basha and CuChullaine O'Reilly—two avid equestrians who founded the Long Riders' Guild, a group for people who make continuous horseback journeys of 1,000 miles or more—have devoted considerable time to proving that Hopkins was a sham and that his story is a lie. The pair recently edited and published an annotated version of Hidalgo and Other Stories by Frank T. Hopkins. In the book, the O'Reillys refute Hopkins' claims point by point, enlisting the support of more than 50 curators, criminologists, equestrians, and other experts. "Hopkins' fantasies are in no way an autobiographical account," argues CuChullaine O'Reilly. "They are the deluded ramblings of a very sick man."

Though the book's rhetoric is a bit overblown—and it's worth asking why the co-editors are so intent on debunking the Hopkins legend—the evidence they present is certainly sufficient to raise questions about whether Disney can legitimately advertise Hidalgo, a $80 million project, as a "true story." (The O'Reillys have sent several letters of complaint to Touchstone and Disney and received no response.) Hopkins' only known records of employment, the O'Reillys report, show that he was a foreman digging subway tunnels on the East Coast, a shipyard boilermaker, and a horse handler for the Ringling Brothers circus.

The list of feats Hopkins did not accomplish is much longer. The O'Reillys found no mention of him in the carefully kept records of the U.S. Cavalry. Several of the long-distance victories Hopkins claims are dubious, either because the alleged route was unlikely or because the race itself did not exist. As for his friendship with Black Elk, there's no written record of it—unless lifting passages from Black Elk Speaks in your memoirs counts as a display of camaraderie. Juti Winchester, the curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo., found nothing about Hopkins in the museum's archives. "If Hopkins was the 'ringmaster' for the Wild West," she asks, "why do we not find his name listed as such, when even the pile drivers and dishwashers got their names in the programs?"

The most problematic of all the disputes, however, is the one surrounding the Ocean of Fire, the long-distance race through the Middle East that serves as the centerpiece event in the Disney movie. Hopkins claims that in 1889, he traveled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show to the Paris World's Fair, where he was invited by the Aden-based businessman Rau Rasmussen to enter a 3,000-mile race in the Middle Eastern desert. The course described by Hopkins heads through what's now Saudi Arabia's Rub al-Khali, or "Empty Quarter," which—at over 250,000 square miles—is the world's largest continuous expanse of sand.

The real Frank
The real Frank

According to Hopkins, the Ocean of Fire occurred every year for more than 1,000 years. It started in Aden, then went north along the Persian Gulf, then turned west along the borders of present-day Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. All victorious riders—and to a degree, horses—in this centuries-old race were said to be of Arabian blood. Hopkins rode Hidalgo, a paint mustang he acquired from the Sioux. He claims that he and Hidalgo stayed back during the first week and watched others wilt, then stormed ahead during the second week and eventually won in a time of 68 days, some 22 to 36 hours ahead of the nearest competitor, depending on which Hopkins account you believe—the one from his memoirs or the one in a later article he published in July 1941, in Vermont Horse and Bridle Trail Bulletin.

The O'Reillys, of course, believe neither. They found no evidence of anyone by the name of Rau Rasmussen in Aden and point out that it's unlikely Hopkins traveled to Paris with the Wild West show, since he never worked with them. But what shocks those who have looked into the Ocean of Fire in the Middle East is that the race itself didn't exist. Peter Harrigan, a journalist stationed in Saudi Arabia, saw an early Hidalgoscript and began to wonder about the epic race. While writing a series of articles about it in the Arab News, Harrigan contacted Yemen's Ghalib Al-Quaiti, the last ruling Sultan of the area including Aden and an Oxford- and Cambridge-educated historian. His blunt conclusion about the race: "There is absolutely no record of any horse race in the past staged from Aden or from anywhere in that part of Arabia. Southern Arabia has never been known for its horses."

Hidalgoscreenwriter John Fusco acknowledges that he took some liberties with history in the script, but he is skeptical of the degree to which the anti-Hopkins camp discredits the rider. Fusco says the Ocean of Fire existed—he based his account of it on two chapters about the race found in Albert W. Harris' Blood of the Arab, a book the screenwriter says is "considered to be the early 'Bible' on Arabian horse history." Accurate as that assessment might be, Harris bases his Ocean of Fire chapters primarily on letters Hopkins wrote him in 1940—hardly independent verification. Beyond Blood of the Arab and Hopkins' own work, Fusco says, "Having taken place in 1890, and the Bedu culture being of an oral tradition, I was not bothered by lack of contemporary documentation" of the race.

Fusco should have been. Both Harrigan and Mohammed Talal Al-Rasheed, a scholar of Arabic and English literature and history, point to the long-standing written record in the region. "There are official correspondence papers between the ruler of Hail and the Sublime Porte in Istanbul and the Khedive in Cairo," says Al-Rasheed. "One can check those since the race would have crossed areas controlled by the Turks, too. Not a single word about this race." As Harrigan sees it, as much as Westerners—Disney and Fusco among them—would like to believe that Arabs relied exclusively on an oral tradition, "the literature of the horse extends back to before the coming of Islam."

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.

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