On March 5, Disney is releasing Hidalgo, an $80 million blockbuster based on "the incredible true story," as the studio puts it, of a legendary cowboy and his trusty mustang. Starring Lord of the Rings hunk Viggo Mortensen, the film is a nags-to-riches saga about American hero Frank T. Hopkins and his 1890 ride in the Ocean of Fire, a death-defying 3,000-mile race across the Arabian Desert.
The contest, as portrayed in the film, is a centuries-old annual event restricted to the best Bedouin horsemen and the finest Arabian steeds. But thanks to Hopkins's fame as an American endurance rider, he's challenged by a Saudi sheik (played by Omar Sharif) to enter the race with—hat else?—is underdog paint horse, Hidalgo.
Yeah, and Cheez Whiz is cheddar. In the Hidalgo version of history, Hopkins was, for starters, a star in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show; a half-Sioux Indian who witnessed the massacre at Wounded Knee; a winner of 400 endurance races, including a 2,000-mile epic from Texas to Vermont; and the greatest rider the West had ever known.
In reality, he may have been one of its greatest confidence men. According to a veritable Greek chorus of historians and other experts who have weighed in on what's been called "the Hopkins hoax," there never was an annual Ocean of Fire race—r a Texas-to-Vermont showdown—or any proof that Hopkins even rode well. What's more, naysayers add, Hopkins's mother was not a Sioux, he was not at Wounded Knee, and there's no record of him working for Buffalo Bill. One of the few things known for certain about Hopkins, who was born in either 1865 or 1884 (he lied about his age), is that he dug tunnels for the Philadelphia subway system in 1926. It's possible that he never even lived out west.
Hence the question that currently has authors, scholars, curators, and a little-known group of real-life endurance riders hopping mad: Why, in the face of all this evidence, has Disney persisted in calling Hopkins the real thing?
"Look, Lord of the Rings was a great movie, but no one says it's a true story," says CuChullaine O'Reilly, who, with his wife, Basha, founded the Long Riders' Guild, a Kentucky-based international association of people who have completed 1,000-plus-mile horseback journeys. In advance of Hidalgo's early-March opening, the group devoted 11 months to investigating Hopkins's claims, nearly all of which dissolved under scrutiny.
Along the way, the Long Riders asked Dale Yeager, a criminologist who consulted on the JonBenét Ramsey murder case, to complete a psychological profile of Hopkins. His conclusion? The man was a "pathological liar." They also contacted David Dary, a retired University of Oklahoma journalism professor and author of 13 books on the American West, who believes Hopkins was just a pathetic wannabe. "The history of the American West," Dary says, "is full of whoppers."
Less reticent is Vine Deloria Jr., a Native American historian and author of the prize-winning nonfiction book Custer Died for Your Sins, who calls Hopkins about as trustworthy as an Indian-treaty writer. "He's the biggest liar the West has ever seen," Deloria says. "You wonder why Disney is doing it, and all you see is the dollar signs."
Historical horse epics (think Seabiscuit) certainly have huge box-office potential. But why not just fess up and label Hidalgo pure fiction? "That's all we want," says O'Reilly, who sent Disney a pile of exhaustive research debunking Hopkins.
Disney isn't interested, and neither is its studio Touchstone Pictures, which is releasing the film. For one thing, movie trailers have been trumpeting the "based on a true story" line for months. For another, "there's no tangible evidence that disproves the story of Hidalgo," insists a Touchstone source who asks not to be identified.
Oddly enough, it was a Disney venture that started the whole imbroglio. A year ago, filmmakers shooting a Hopkins documentary for the History Channel, which is partly owned by Disney, asked the Long Riders' Guild for fact-checking help. A few phone calls later, O'Reilly says, the Hopkins myth was unhorsed.
The Long Riders concluded that Hopkins's legend was sheer self-promotion. A newspaper and a horse magazine had published his wild tales, which were later passed down in books, including one by Shane author Jack Schaefer. When Hopkins died in New York in 1951, he also left behind unpublished memoirs detailing flabbergasting exploits on Spanish mustangs—thus the Hidalgo premise. But when it came to proof, the trail went cold. Archives had no record of Hopkins—not even a birth certificate.
To Disney's credit, the History Channel will air this controversy in The True Story of Hidalgo, slated for broadcast March 4. The show features the O'Reillys and other Hopkins critics but gives equal time to Hidalgo screenwriter John Fusco, who believes Hopkins was a genuine hero—just an undocumented one. Given the shoddy record keeping of the times, Fusco explains, it's possible that Hopkins did amazing things but somehow didn't leave a paper trail.
It's also possible that Hidalgo audiences won't care one way or the other. Directed by Joe Johnston (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III), the film promises to be a visual knockout, complete with scenes of Hidalgo outrunning a sandstorm from hell. The O'Reillys, meanwhile, feel they've done all they can, so when the movie opens, they'll be busy with other matters—like their four-year, 25,000-mile around-the-world horseback trip, pegged to start this year. Between them, the two have already done everything from riding 2,500 miles (from Russia to England) to playing buz khazi (in which Afghan horsemen fight over a headless goat). But this will be their biggest epic yet. "It'll be wonderful to leave the Hopkins mess behind," says Basha.
Stuck with the cleanup will be people like Juti Winchester, a curator at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, in Cody, Wyoming, who will have to explain to the curious public why not a single exhibit mentions Frank T. Hopkins. "I can't help but pity him," Winchester says. "You read the stuff he claims and you want to say, 'What planet was he on?'"