Jessica Crabtree

Tag: frank hopkins

Hidalgo, Part 2

by on Feb.13, 2012, under JOURNAL: Nature, art, cultural perspectives

Last month I did a post about Frank Hopkins, the inspiration behind the movie Hidalgo, and the long-standing scuffle over the questionable evolution of his legend and lore. For all practical purposes, I’m treating the movie as a fictional work – and while I’m no Roger Ebert, I have a few thoughts on the historical side of the film and some interesting aspects of the production.

Hidalgo screenshot

First, some remarks on the way the movie approaches the Native theme. For a moment let’s overlook the casting of a Danish actor (Viggo Mortensen) in the main role; this may mesh well with the cowboy image, but was probably not the best or most obvious choice to represent a Lakota trying to pass for white. That aside, Mortensen does play a very compelling role (and more on his real-life horsemanship below). His character, as an army scout, has to deal with the trauma of (unknowningly) carrying the Bigfoot Wounded Kneedisarmament order to the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee where he sees the escalation into a vicious massacre that destroys many of his own relations. (Image: University of Illinois)

One noteworthy point is how closely the film portrays the scene following the massacre – you can immediately recognize it from the actual photographs of the event, and you can tell that great care was taken to reconstruct the horrible scene.

Supposedly, it was this bracing scene that first sold Mortensen on the role. There is nothing romanticized about this event, or about the Wild West shows that Hopkins later joins as he tries to run from his past. While the real Hopkins never actually worked with “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Annie Oakley, his fictional counterpart gives the audience a glimpse of the degrading situation that the glamorous Western sideshows really were for their Indian stars. The “cowboys vs. Indians shoot em’ up” that used to be celebrated in old-time Westerns justly seems ludicrous and shameful as ignorant, bigoted audiences boo the Lakota chiefs who bear the farce with quiet dignity.

As the most famous of the Western tours, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show helped introduce this twisted image to the world and set the stage for media portrayals of Indians for the next century. The irony was that Cody was himself sympathetic to the injustices against Native Americans, as well as a supporter of conservation efforts for Western icons such as the bison and the mustang. But he often found his intentions stifled by political and financial pressure – an angle that is well presented in Hidalgo.

I’d be remiss not to mention the uncanny match in casting him: good job, don’t you think?

Buffalo Bill

To its credit, Hidalgo lacks many of the pervasive stereotypes that plague movies about Indians. The Lakota people portrayed in the film aren’t over-spiritualized, mystical tribal folks (the “medicine man” syndrome) or mindless “warrior types.” The main character has to deal with reconciling his two opposite identities (which was something very real to many Indians at the turn of the 20th century) and he is able to do so after an immersive experience in an outside culture that tests his physical and emotional limits and helps him realize his own strengths and sense of purpose.


There is a part in the movie where the daughter of the sheik (who spends his leisure reading Western dime novels) talks to Hopkins about North America’s counterpart horse culture, the Plains Indians. She asks him, “Have you seen their vanishing kind?” and he replies, “I am their vanishing kind,” confiding in her about his Lakota heritage. They compare their predicaments: hers as a free-spirited woman restricted by cultural convention, and his as a half-Lakota trying to pass for white in an Anglo-dominated society.


Yes, they used the “V-word” outright. But in their context, it makes sense, considering where she was getting her information, and the prevailing ideas of the time. While the “vanishing race” philosophy is largely a political mythology that developed in the European psyche, the future must have been uncertain for the Lakota and other Native peoples of that time. As we know today, the Lakota were not vanishing – but their way of life was. And it very well must have appeared that way to someone caught between the two worlds, witness to the horrors of the Wounded Knee massacre, and facing the extermination of the horses that were part of their cultural lifeline.

In the movie, after Hopkins and his mustang prove their mettle in the Arabian race, he uses the winnings to save Indian mustangs who had been rounded up and marked for slaughter. The systematic destruction of mustangs and Indian ponies was indeed rampant during that time. In the spirit of General Sheridan’s manifesto “Every buffalo killed is an Indian dead,” the killing of mustangs was tantamount to killing buffalo in the eyes of those bent on destroying Native culture in the West. Armed confrontations between Indians and the army were often followed up with mass-executions of the Indians’ ponies, as in the Battle of the Washita River where Custer oversaw the killing of over 800 Cheyenne ponies.

The film’s main gist is that, as horse enthusiasts everywhere can affirm, the love of a good horse transcends times and cultures. I think the real irony is that for all the Western romance conjured up around this legendary horseman Hopkins, it’s the actors in the movie (both human and equine) that give it its real-life substance. Watching Viggo Mortensen with a horse on screen is nothing short of pure bliss. His prowess on horseback is such that during filming he took on riding segments that even the stuntmen turned down, including the bareback race final. And when you see the chemistry between horse and rider, you can understand why the actor was so captivated with his co-star that he actually bought the horse when production was over. (This is not the first time he’s done it, either; he also bought his starring rides from Lord of the Rings after bonding with them on set.) There are a number of great interviews telling how amazing it was to work with the paint stallion (named “TJ”) and his main stunt double, Oscar, on the film set.

“I had no intention of buying a horse off of this movie. But with T.J. he was…I don’t know, I just got to really, really like him. He’s got such a unique, strong personality. He’s a small horse, but very intelligent, very quick learner, for a stallion very relaxed on the set. He wasn’t afraid or worried about the lights, camera, or anything. He was totally calm…

It was not just Mortensen’s real-life love of horses that attracted him to the role. With a long-standing interest in Lakota culture, Mortensen spent time learning the Lakota language from elders on Pine Ridge prior to filming. He points to this pivotal period in US history where national identity evolved at the expense of massive cultural destruction.

In Hidalgo, this story is shown from the point of view of the underdog – a single person who rises above the distortions of prejudice and becomes a hero by defeating his own demons, and disproving those who disdain his horse’s (and by extension his own) mixed heritage. “Any ordeal for a time clears and purifies your vision of yourself and how you fit in or don’t fit into the world. Ordeals are what make sense of life for you and teach you things. Those are the kinds of movies, at least as an audience member, that I’m drawn to,” he said in an interview.

In this respect, the new twist on the cowboy hero is a welcome change. “You see the cowboy archetype in samurai culture, in Lakota/Native American culture, in the Maori indigenous culture of New Zealand—it’s universal… A lot of things that are expanded on or added to it are metaphor, helpful in highlighting certain values and certain ideas. I think that’s the purpose that myth serves… Our identity as a nation is largely based on myth, on storytelling, making up stories, exaggerating the accomplishments of extraordinary individuals.”

This is very true, as in the case of Buffalo Bill – one of America’s Western legends – whose inflated exploits run a close second to that of the controversial Frank Hopkins. And yet, being the national symbol that he is, he has never been the object of so much hostile debate.

The real-life Hopkins made spurious claims of performing with the great Wild West Show; and when you think of him working alongside the Arabian show horses in Ringling’s circus, you can easily envision him being captivated with this looming Western icon, perhaps imagining a more glamorous career for himself. Then the idea begins germinating in his mind of the ultimate face-off between the exotic Arabian and the mustang, and once the idea is loose it becomes a canvas for the aspirations of so many others – i.e., a myth.

So, watch Hidalgo for the stunning horse flesh, and the incredible scenery. Then make your own call about how myths take shape, and legends – like the desert dunes – loom large, only to churn inwards and outwards again, changing with the forces around them.


Above: The starting lineup of Hidalgo and his Arabian competitors (plus one Andalusian).
(Thanks to for a huge stock of screenshots.)

IGN Movies: The Lord of the Rings & Hidalgo star discusses horses, learning new languages, photography, and more

Viggo Mortensen on “Hidalgo”

After Aragorn: Interview by Jeffrey Overstreet

American Paint Horse Association: Hidalgo

See also:

Hidalgo, Part 1 – An introduction to the movie and the Frank Hopkins controversy

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by on Jan.02, 2012, under JOURNAL: Nature, art, cultural perspectives

hidalgo screenshotThe 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.

hidalgo screenshotIt’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 frank hopkinspreserving 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 (continue reading…)

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About Me

I am a freelance artist living in Arkansas, US, specializing in historical portraits of American Indians. I blog about the portrayal and influence of Native Americans in art, history, and the media.

I am fascinated by history and world cultures, ancient and modern, and particularly indigenous peoples. My other interests include wildlife ecology, environmental issues & sustainability, journalism, photography, web design & development. I enjoy music and reading (see my book list here).

You can see some of my pastel work, and my drawings in charcoal and graphite, by visiting my online Gallery.