[A-List] US imperialism: Disney conquers the Middle East
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Wed Mar 10 04:25:12 MST 2004
Disney rides into trouble with story of cowboy who conquers the Middle East
By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles
The Independent, 10 March 2004
Once upon a time, a fabled horseman from the Wild West accepted an unusual
challenge from a Middle Eastern businessman and rode his American mustang to
victory against the odds in an extraordinary 3,000-mile Arabian desert race
known as the Ocean of Fire.
That, at least, is the "true story" touted by the Walt Disney Company as the
basis for its film Hidalgo, which has just opened in the United States.
The premise is certainly bringing in audiences beguiled by its old-fashioned
adventurism and derring-do sensibility. But it has also triggered a cultural
row of rare intensity, as historians, Native Americans and Arab and Muslim
interest groups have all piled into Disney, accusing the company of giving
credence to outrageous fabrications in the interests of promoting a crude
American cultural imperialism and making a fast buck.
"Pony baloney," one critic has called it. "Liar, liar, chaps on fire,"
The film stars Viggo Mortensen - fresh from his triumph in The Lord of the
Rings - as Frank Hopkins, who conquers the Middle East and his hundred
competing Bedouin riders with the sort of ease and bravado the US military
now hunkered down in Iraq can surely only fantasise about.
The historical Hopkins, whose memoirs form the basis for the film script,
claimed to have been the son of a Sioux princess, a US Cavalry trooper from
the age of 12, a witness to the massacre at Wounded Knee, a buddy of the
Indian chieftain Black Elkand President Teddy Roosevelt, the champion of
hundreds of endurance races, including a 2,000-mile marathon from Texas to
Vermont, and a regular performer in Buffalo Bill's touring Wild West Show.
It was while performing with Buffalo Bill in Paris in 1889, he said, that an
Aden businessman, Rau Rasmussen, invited him to compete in the Ocean of
Fire, a 1,000-year-old race across Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter and up
through Mesopotamia into Syria. Despite the harshness of the terrain and the
physical disadvantages of his horse,Hidalgo, he crossed the finishing line
in 68 days, anywhere between one and two days ahead of the nearest
competition. (The film, naturally, makes the finale a lot tighter.)
The problem is, Frank Hopkins was almost certainly a fabulator and a
confidence man whose tales of heroic deeds were little more than tall
stories. There is no mention of him in US Cavalry records, or in accounts of
the Battle of Wounded Knee, or in the extensive records of Buffalo Bill's
travelling show. His name does not crop up in Teddy Roosevelt's voluminous
correspondence. There is no evidence that the Texas-Vermont race was even
run. He was never photographed in the saddle, except as an old man
"re-enacting" the exploits of his youth.
As for the Ocean of Fire, it too appears not to have taken place, either in
1890 or in any other year of its supposedly glorious 1,000-year-old history.
The notion of a 3,000-mile race from Yemen to Syria is in itself laughable.
As the Arab News newspaper wrote recently, a race of that length starting in
Aden would finish up "somewhere in Romania". Even following the most
circuitous route, the horsemen would finish north of Armenia.
Awad al-Badi, an authority on Western travellers to Arabia based at the King
Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, put it bluntly: "The idea of
a historic trans-Arabian horse race ever having been run is pure nonsense
... simply from a technical, logistical, cultural and geopolitical point of
Much of the damning evidence against Hopkins has been unearthed by an
equestrian exploration group called the Long Riders' Guild, which got wind
of the Disney film early in the production process and took huge offence at
the notion of a big-budget production glorifying a horseback exploit that
never took place. "This movie is a massive distortion of history, which
further degrades the reputation of the Walt Disney company," say the Guild's
founders, Basha and CuChullaine O'Reilly.
They recruited more than 70 academics and experts to look further into the
historical record and expose Frank Hopkins as a hoaxer.
Their research raised questions about just about everything, starting with
the year of Hopkins' birth, variously reported as 1865 and 1884. They could
find no evidence he had ever ridden a racehorse or even set foot in the
American West. The only known records of employment that they found showed
he was a shipyard boilermaker, a digger of subway tunnels in Philadelphia
and a horse handler for the Ringling Brothers circus.
The fact that Disney has bought into Hopkins' fantasies, all the while
promoting them as an "incredible true story" in its movie trailers, has
touched countless cultural raw nerves. One of the world's leading Native
American scholars, Vine Deloria of the University of Colorado, is furious at
the uncritical repetition of Hopkins' claims about his role in Sioux
history. He wrote: "Hopkins' claims are so outrageously false that one
wonders why Disney were attracted to this material at all, except of course
the constant propensity to make money under any conditions available."
And the Council on American-Islamic Relations has written to Disney to
complain of negative stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs in the film. Other
Arab commentators, such as Hussein Ibish of the Arab American
Anti-Discrimination Committee, point to the uncom- fortable parallels
between the film and the real-life fantasy of US domination in Iraq and the
rest of the Middle East. "The idea," as Mr Ibish puts it, "that being a
frontiersman in the United States prepares you for dealing with another
group of savages."
Disney's response to this barrage of criticism has been awkward, not to say
contradictory. The film's screenwriter, John Fusco, clings to the notion
that his story is based on rigorously checked historical sources, and has
even started a website in his defence. But last week a documentary aired on
the History Channel, a Disney subsidiary, borrowed much of the Long Riders'
research to trash Hopkins' claims.
Disney's executive director of international publicity, Nina Heyn, was
quoted last year as saying, in an apparent moment of unguarded honesty, that
"no one here really cares about the historical aspects", a line the company
has been careful not to repeat since.
The company has a large investment to protect - some $80m in production
costs alone - at a time when the Disney name has been mired in controversy
and its chief executive, Michael Eisner, has faced open revolt from his
shareholders, and from Roy Disney, nephew of the company's founder, Walt.
The film's release date has been postponed twice, perhaps because of the
awkward resonances of last year's Iraq war, when it was originally set to
hit the cinemas.
A tale of conquest of the Orient, based on entirely false pretences ... Now
where have we heard that one before?
More information about the A-List