The first time I saw a glimpse of Disney-Touchstone’s 2004 Hidalgo, the thing that stopped me in my tracks was the gorgeous paint pony that gives the film its name. Since I’m hard to displease with a movie about horses – and since, as I later learned, the film has a strong Native theme – I made it a point to see the whole thing.
Hidalgo is a quasi-historical production about Frank Hopkins, a Wild West rider who takes his mustang on a treacherous race through the Arabian desert. At face value, it’s fun and attractive and more of a family flick than a plausible historical epic. But once you’ve seen it (and the epilogue explaining that the whole thing was a true story) your first thought is to find out more about this amazing guy who used his outstanding feats on horseback as a catalyst for one of the greatest efforts of wild mustang preservation.
Aside from the mustang outreach, the film’s other attraction was its roots in Plains Indian culture. Hopkins isn’t just a cowboy; he’s a born-and raised Lakota struggling to come to terms with his mixed white heritage, serving as an army scout and finding himself involved in the fateful events at Wounded Knee. By movie’s end he is able to reconcile his purpose in life by embracing his Indian heritage and working to preserve the horse lifestyle.
It’s obvious to any objective viewer that the story line is a little far-fetched, slightly on the feel-good side of reality. The reinvented cowboy figure sanctified by his Indian heritage, making it more politically correct for a modern audience; damsels in distress (an Arabian princess, no less); a journey of self-discovery and redemption, and the impossible victory of the underdog in a typical Disney-ish fashion.
Add to this the faux pas of having a half-Lakota portrayed by a blond Nordic (you probably already know my feelings about Indians played by non-Indians), and some really deplorable geography (Damascus is nowhere near the sea, and a 3,000 mile race would take a rider far out of the range of the film’s setting). But that’s my more abrasive approach. You’d really have to see it to get that it really works. It’s good in a genuine, almost-but-not-really-believable sort of way.
The Hopkins Controversy
But back to my investigation. Unbeknownst to me, the movie had already stirred up a long-standing, long-winded debate about this marvelous legend of a man, Frank Hopkins. “Camp A” lauded Hopkins’s accomplishments as a champion endurance racer, and his landmark efforts of preserving the mustang and traditional Lakota knowledge of horsemanship. “Camp B” called him a hopeless huckster, and Hidalgo merely the cheap and devious sequel to his colossal fraud. Some of these even purport that he may never have ridden a horse in his life, and the whole legend was the pipe dream of a thwarted wannabe cowboy. Oddly enough, this time, the cry of stretched or embellished facts was not aimed directly at Hollywood.
I was interested in what first provoked such a vociferous debate. It seems that if Hopkins were half the man he was claimed to be – and did half the things he was claimed to have had accomplished – he should literally be the most famous man on earth. Excuse my ignorance but I had never heard of him before I saw the movie. Apparently, the historical record is none too familiar with him either. A quick read of his biography and you can easily sympathize with Hidalgo’s detractors:
“As well as spurring his mustang to victory in (to be exact) 452 endurance races around the globe, Frank Hopkins also has an impressive list of other achievements. He claimed to be the most famous dispatch rider in the West, an associate of Buffalo Bill Cody and one of the “cowboys” from the Congress of Rough Riders of the World performing in Buffalo Bill’s internationally famed Wild West Show. He says he was Chief Crazy Horse’s protégé, put on a two-hour equestrian performance before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle and helped famed plainsman Buffalo Jones capture and tame the first buffalo.
Hopkins also said he served with the Pinkerton detective agency, was a secret agent of the US government during World War I, a guide in the Grand Canyon for big game hunters including novelist Zane Grey, and once charged up San Juan hill with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. All this, of course, was in addition to mentoring Billy the Kid.”
“Hidalgo: A Film or Flimflam?” by Peter Harrigan, Arab News
Please give me a break. Either he suffered from borderline personality disorder, senility, or the world’s worst midlife crisis – or someone was seriously messing with this man’s memoirs.
I am not about to get embroiled in the convoluted debate over whether Hopkins was the world’s greatest endurance racer, or which episodes of his exploits are plausible and which are merely spin; there’s far too much literature on the subject for me to add more (and almost nothing about the man is not in question, starting with his date of birth!) But the material points here are 1) what’s the best evidence for and against the legend of Frank Hopkins, and 2) what to make of Hidalgo the movie?
Supporters vs. skeptics
In Camp A are such supporters as writer John Fusco, the administrator of FrankHopkins.com, mustang preservation activist, and last but not least, author of the Hidalgo screenplay. He has spent many years researching Hopkins’s life and offers the testimonies of first-hand acquaintances and friends of Hopkins. They vouch for his vast knowledge of unorthodox horsemanship gleaned from many years of intimate association with mustangs and Native horsemen:
“Whoever Frank Hopkins was—whether or not he made some spectacular long rides in underground competitions; whether or not he or Gert [Gertrude Hopkins, who published her husband's biography after his death] padded a more modest history with purple prose– one thing is now incontrovertible fact, supported by living witnesses:
The man was acknowledged and respected as “the ultimate in horsemanship”, a skilled trainer who used natural techniques long before they became trendy, and a passionate and eloquent spokesman for the preservation of an endangered breed. He was extremely knowledgeable about Native American horsemanship and Native horse medicine. He was an inspiration to later preservationists… and he remains an inspiration to the new wave of preservationists. He was also–according to everyone who has come forward to say they knew him—a very decent and quiet man.”
John Fusco, from FrankHopkins.com
Fusco and others also tout Native oral traditions which may or may not support the story of the epic desert race depicted in the movie. This draws the ire of opponents such as Vine Deloria Jr., renowned Lakota scholar, and likewise of Arab scholars who contest the idea of screenwriters with insider knowledge of a grand ceremonial race which has apparently defied all historic record – even in the Middle East.
The rallying cry of the Hopkins supporters is the adage “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” – this in response to the fact that there is no concrete information about his upbringing, his pony express career, his racing record, or any overseas performance; no record of his service as an army scout and interpreter; and no documentation of his being in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Oddly enough, the only extant employment records for Mr. Hopkins are from the early 1900s – as a manual laborer in the shipyards and subways of the Eastern seaboard, and as a horse handler for the Ringling Brothers Circus (the irony there being that the show horses were Arabians, not mustangs).
A History Channel documentary entitled “The True Story of Hidalgo” featuring many of Camp B’s Hopkins opponents outlines many of the arguments discrediting the Hopkins story. Most damning perhaps is the text of the autobiography itself, with its outlandish Quixotic exploits (some of which no doubt were added at a later date) and its egregious distortions of Native history. In this respect it was a dubious move on the part of Fusco and the producers to use such a distasteful example of cultural appropriation as a source for a film supporting a Native image. Really, would it have been so difficult to start from scratch?
The most extreme naysayers paint a portrait of Hopkins as the most insidious kind of charlatan, slandering the movie Hidalgo and conjuring every possible criticism to the point of crying conspiracy. But between those who claim he is a neglected and maligned hero, and those who claim that he never rode a horse in his life, my instincts tell me that the truth is to be found somewhere in the middle. Our best bet is to work backwards – before the movie, before the publications.
Hopkins did work as a horse handler, so it’s likely he was able to pick up a good bit of the trade. Unfortunately any evidence of his prowess as a rider is circumstantial at best. If he was anything as good as he is claimed, then it is highly suspect that no more substantial record exists in all the annals of the West. (Movie fans should also remember that the film depicts only one hand-picked episode from Hopkins’s fantastic memoirs; if we had been presented with the lump sum of his Wild West escapades, it would certainly never pass for reality.) Until Hopkins researchers come up with more solid evidence to support his reputation as a champion horseman, his case is shaky at best. The fact that almost nothing is known about his life outside of his memoirs remains the primary obstacle, and explains why the story is such fertile ground for imagination.
What about his real role in mustang preservation? Supporters claim that he started the first wild mustang preserve in eastern Oklahoma, where his beloved Hidalgo was released to run free with a wild herd. I haven’t been able to find record of any such preserve. In fact the next best thing is the project organization of none other than writer John Fusco, who founded a mustang refuge for the Indian ponies of the Oklahoma reservations. This, incidentally, is the place where he claims Hidalgo’s descendents can be found today – an uncanny and somewhat confusing find that brings the search full circle. (I’ve got to admit, I’m not totally on board with Fusco’s line of logic through all of this.)
During Hopkins’s time in the limelight, and up to his death in Queens, New York in 1951, he was an outspoken advocate for the mustang and urged for steps to be taken to ensure its survival:
“In my day I watch the destruction of the buffalo and the antelope, We say their destruction was due to a benighted profligate generation, If we permit the MUSTANG to disappear we may be accused of the same qualities and we will deserve the accusation, The MUSTANG is as AMERICAN as George Washington and AMERICA is a vast enough land and IMPORTANT enough Nation to have A HORSE of our very own, HE IS FACING HIS LAST STAND, TO LET HIM GO WOULD IN MY OPINION BE A MAJOR AMERICAN NATIONAL TRAGEDY.”
Frank Hopkins, quoted from Reno Wild Horse Tours – About Nevada and Mustangs
Whether his interest in the mustang was from personal experience, or merely part of some fantasy, wild horses were the height of romance in the early 1900s – part and parcel of the “vanishing frontier” that spawned so much sensational spin and so many hollow heroes. Hopkins’s legend survived because it embraced the lure of the West, interwove it with popular fantasies about its Native peoples, and captured the romance of the horse in much the same way as the Wild West shows, dime novels, and early Western movies. If Hopkins was a complete fraud, then he’s by far not the biggest or the worst that has been perpetuated into the present day.
The mustang – and by extension the man who rides it – has always captured our imaginations and embodied our wildest fantasies of adventure and freedom. That’s the natural reason most people will be biased in favor of this kind of story: just like enthralled audiences of the early 1900s, we’d really love to believe it’s true. It’s why the Hopkins’s legend still looms large and the movie has caused such a huge splash.
The legend and the movie
“As far as I’m concerned, if they [the producers] would’ve made it clear from the very beginning, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Juti Winchester, curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo. (Quoted from “Hidalgo the Horse Hoax” – Blue Corn Comics
This is only partly so, given that the Hopkins controversy was seething long before Hidalgo ever saw the light of day. But the interest stirred by the movie’s production has certainly served to intensify the public debate over historical accuracy, and added a few more questionable elements to the mix.
For instance, the movie makes a focal point of Hopkins’s Native heritage, whereas beyond his memoirs’ aggrandized tales of kinship with several well-known Native leaders, there’s no indication that he had any Lakota ancestry. As far as it’s presented in the movie, it’s pure literary license. And the part about his using the winner’s purse from the Arab race to save a herd of doomed mustangs that still roams free today, is likewise pure fiction. It appears that the film writer has channeled his own honest desire to protect and celebrate the mustang into a partly fictional persona who was less real than his on-screen portrayal.
“I took what was a very banal, saddle-tech account of Hopkins’ own desert memories of 1891 and turned them into an action-adventure celebration of a story that has long fascinated me. Today, some critics actually believe that Hopkins himself dreamed up bandit ambuscades, hunting leopards, daring rescues, a three second victory margin, and the dramatic name of the race: the Ocean of Fire. He did not. I did.”
John Fusco (FrankHopkins.com)
In my mind, tacking on the “true story” line was the clincher – an underhanded marketing spiel that contributed absolutely nothing to the efforts of validating Hopkins’s life and achievements. It merged the Hopkins controversy with what should have been a completely separate issue about film making and performance. If writers or producers want to take a few liberties with a historical idea and make it into a movie, we can all live with that. But using already disputed material, embellishing it, and then passing it off as the real thing, is a recipe for disaster – hence the ridiculously voluble debate that’s still going strong several years after the film’s release.
Critic Roger Ebert’s 3-out-of-5-star review sums it up perfectly (in addition to describing the movie to a tee):
“Whether you like movies like this, only you can say. But if you do not have some secret place in your soul that still responds even a little to brave cowboys, beautiful princesses and noble horses, then you are way too grown up and need to cut back on cable news. And please ignore any tiresome scolds who complain that the movie is not really based on fact. Duh. ”
“Hidalgo” Review – RogerEbert.com
The Long Riders Guild “The Hopkins Hoax” – a huge directory of Hopkins-related research (mainly debunking the legend)
Weaving a Cinematic Web: Hidalgo and the Search for Frank Hopkins By Juti A. Winchester, Ph.D., Former Curator, Buffalo Bill Museum
FrankHopkins.org Article about the Hopkins debate – from John Fusco’s site dedicated to Hopkins research
“Hidalgo – the Horse Hoax” from Blue Corn Comics – more research about Hopkins and the movie Hidalgo and correspondence with John Fusco