After devoting three years of his life to playing Aragorn in the Oscar-laden The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Viggo Mortensen was looking forward to a long rest and then taking a part in a movie that would be totally different from the Tolkien epic. The movie business rarely runs according to plan, however. Another great role came his way earlier than expected, in the shape of the sweeping adventure story Hidalgo – but it wasn’t a clean switch from one to the other.
“As far as the public knows, the last The Lord of the Rings film, The Return of the King, came out a little while ago and now I’m in a totally different film,” says Viggo (pronounced Veego). “But there was a considerable overlap. While I was making Hidalgo in various parts of the world, I was still doing some work on The Lord of the Rings, which meant flying back to New Zealand to re-shoot scenes. “Conversely, I would find myself climbing to the top of the highest sand dune in Morocco, on the set of Hidalgo, to get a reception on my cell phone to do an interview about The Lord of the Rings!”
They say a change is as good as a rest but there was no rest for the 45-year-old actor when Hidalgo went into production. The dramatic story is based on the real-life exploits of Frank Hopkins – a cowboy who became an American folk hero for his success in long-distance horse races across the States, in the days of the old West. In the film, he leaves his native America to accept a challenge to ride in an historic race across 3,000 miles of the Arabian desert – on his faithful horse, Hidalgo. At the start of the race, there are 100 horses raring to go, presenting a particularly frightening moment for cast and crew.
“It really was very scary,” says Viggo. “All these horses were bunched together and desperate to set off. When they did, there were several fallers. One guy was seriously injured after falling and being trampled on by several horses. He was out of action for five months. As I watched the ground fly by, I just kept thinking to myself ‘I don’t want to fall off.’ I am used to riding. I did quite a bit in The Lord of the Rings but, quite apart from that, I rode a lot as a kid. Back then, though, it didn’t seem to matter if you fell off. You’d just get back on, or walk home if the horse had run off. As you get older, you have a greater appreciation of the dangers.”
Horses – there were 800 in all – weren’t the only animals that had to be accommodated. The film also features camels, vultures, falcons, rabbits, goats, dogs, donkeys, buffalo and even leopards. Hidalgo himself had FOUR stand-ins, all of which had to be carefully painted to match the exact markings of TJ, the main horse. For all their technical wizardry, the film-makers were often at the mercy of the elements.
“When we wanted a sand storm, the skies would be blue and there wouldn’t be a breath of wind,” says Viggo. “And when we wanted calm weather, the wind would get up, ruining equipment with sand. It was a hard shoot and my bones were aching after all that riding but I really enjoyed it.”
The film marks a return to the desert – and a rare big-screen role – for Omar Sharif, who co-starred with Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia; and British actress Louise Lombard, who found fame in the BBC drama series The House of Eliott, also has a key role. Although it’s very much in the Boys’ Own adventure mould, the film has a sub text involving the White Man’s treatment of native Indians and the clash of cultures between the West and Arab nations, which has an obvious resonance today.
“If people are drawn to the film by the adventure story of Hopkins and his horse races, and then get to think about the other issues raised, then I will be very happy,” says Viggo.
Hopkins and his four-legged friend Hidalgo are virtually inseparable throughout the film – and, happily, the partnership remains to this day. At the end of the shoot, Mortensen couldn’t bear to be parted from the horse … so he bought him!