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OFF-SCREEN

Long trail of lies

When Disney spun the movie 'Hidalgo' as 'based on a true story,' questions began to fly, reports Bobbie Lieberman. Was its hero, Frank T. Hopkins, for real -- or a total fraud?

February 17, 2004|Bobbie Lieberman | Bobbie Lieberman is a freelance journalist and endurance rider based in Southern California.

In the deep shadows of the stippled dunes, a solitary figure silently prepares for an epic journey that will begin at first light. Frank T. Hopkins has brought his plucky mustang, Hidalgo, across the ocean to compete against the world's finest Arabian horses on their own ground. All around him, pale robes that shield the Bedouins from dust, sand and heat swirl like butterflies. But doughty Hopkins wears the clothes of the Old West: dungarees, jacket, boots and Western hat. Hidalgo carries a stout Western saddle and gear.

The horses line up across the sand, milling and shifting for position as the starter lifts his gun skyward. Hopkins and Hidalgo stand quietly, awaiting the ultimate endurance challenge. Bang! The writhing line of horseflesh springs forward. Hopkins allows Hidalgo to start slowly, settle into his stride. The rider is in no hurry. He knows the task ahead and just how much horse he has under him. He is confident of winning the 3,000-mile "Ocean of Fire" race across the Arabian Peninsula.

Cut. Hold it.

There's another take on the hero of the coming-soon movie "Hidalgo": Frank T. Hopkins was not the greatest long-distance rider ever to jab his toe into a stirrup. Not even close. He was a counterfeit cowboy and gifted spinner of Old West yarns who lived in the industrial East and worked as a subway tunnel digger, harbor diver and circus horse handler. Disney may tout "Hidalgo" as "based on a true story," but, according to a headstrong posse of fact-finders, the only thing Hopkins ever galloped across was the vast plains of his imagination.

For the few thousand riders worldwide who coax their mounts across hundreds of miles at a stretch, casting Hopkins as a real-life endurance hero is a slap to a centuries-old sport that requires great fortitude and fitness. When word of the film began to spread on the Internet last spring, skepticism about his far-flung -- and -fetched -- adventures turned quickly to incredulity and ultimately to outrage.

In the end, a scattering of experts, from museum curators and history professors to Old West and Native American scholars, joined the quest to validate claims that Hopkins made in magazine articles and an unpublished 1930s memoir that reads like "Pecos Bill Meets the Arabian Nights." As Disney charged ahead with its "true story" marketing and merchandising spin, the research renegades, led by the co-founders of the Long Riders' Guild, reached a unanimous verdict: all lies.

"Everything about the story is complete fiction. There was no Hidalgo," said equine history buff Linda Merims of Norris, Tenn., who conducted her own months-long investigation.

She believes that Hopkins, who died in 1951, parlayed modest experience with horses into a false identity by using the Vermont Three-Day 100-Mile Ride as a platform. Sponsored by the Green Mountain Horse Assn., the 67-year-old event is one of the nation's oldest organized distance rides. The articles he published in the association's Vermont Horse and Bridle Trail Bulletin made him widely known among horsemen in the 1940s as "Frank Hopkins, the great 19th century champion distance rider," Merims said. "GMHA believed him so totally that they invited him to judge their ride one year."

"Hidalgo" screenwriter John Fusco, whose credits include "Crossroads," "Young Guns" and "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," bought into the legend. He had become intrigued with Hopkins while researching his equine passion, the Spanish mustang. On the plains of the West, Fusco said, ranchers spoke reverently of a man who rode great distances to prove the mustang's value.

But as the posse circled around Hopkins last summer, Fusco acknowledged that Disney would likely revisit the "based on a true story" blurb. "I had to take creative license with a sketchy story," he said. "I had to create composite characters and dramatic incidents." So, Fusco conceded, "myth and legend" infuse the film.

*

Remaking history

A facsimile of the "Ocean of Fire" dunes, ethereal and wind-swept, drew Bill Brummel Productions deep into the Imperial Valley last June to re-create the race for a History Channel documentary. Still unaware of Hopkins' deceit and of the fact that Disney partly owns the History Channel, endurance riders from throughout Southern California answered the casting call, trailering their Arabians to the desert.

Under a staging tent on the morning of the dawn-to-dusk shoot, as horses and their costumed riders sweltered in the building heat, producer Bill Brummel explained that his researchers had stumbled while tracking Hopkins' story. "We had a hard time finding any dependable research," he said. "Everything seemed to go back to Frank's own writing. As documentarians, we look for multiple sources to back up factual material. We couldn't find a thing."

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