Frank Hopkins (Mortensen) has made his name as a great long-distance horse racer while running from his Lakota roots. At loose ends after witnessing the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, he's become a drunken clown in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show when he enters the Bedouins' 3,000-mile Ocean of Fire. Pitting the scrappy Hidalgo against some of the purest thoroughbreds in the world, Hopkins finds himself not only in unforgiving terrain but the target of plots by his chief competitors: Lady Davenport (Louise Lombard), Sheikh Riyadh's villainous nephew (Silas Carson) and the prince (Said Taghmaoui) who is riding the sheikh's most prized steed. The sheikh himself (Omar Sharif), a fan of dime novels about the American West, regards Hopkins with respect, while his strong-willed daughter (Zuleikha Robinson) helps him elude danger, a chaste romance blooming.
The cast delivers what's required, with Lombard making a strong impression and the always-welcome Malcolm McDowell contributing an uncredited cameo as Lady Davenport's gin-drinking husband. Mortensen is more than capable of conveying the resourcefulness and decency of a man of few words, but the film cheats us of the true heart of the saga: the power of Hopkins' bond with Hidalgo. Latter gets lots of cute, anthropomorphizing reaction shots, undermining the story's ultimate payoff and the crucial sense that he's an untamed animal. Screenwriter John Fusco draws clear, intriguing parallels between the horse cultures of Native Americans and the Bedouins. But under the helm of Joe Johnston the story makes fitful progress, moving between natural disasters (a CGI sandstorm, locusts) and manmade perils. The swordplay and shoot-'em-ups feel like distractions from the tale of a compelling outsider. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Zuleikha Robinson, Omar Sharif, Louise Lombard, Adam Alexi-Malle, Said Taghmaoui and Silas Carson. Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by John Fusco. Produced by Casey Silver. A Buena Vista release. Period action-adventure. Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and some mild innuendo. Running time: 136 min