Disney rides into trouble with story of cowboy who conquers the Middle East

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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," intoned another.

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 view."

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?