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On September 11, 2001 Americans experienced an event that resulted in a national identity crisis.  Someone had to hate America so much that they’d be willing to kill, and die, to express that hatred.  In the wake of the attacks, Americans had a lot of questions.  Who are these terrorists?  Why do they hate us?  Is Islam peaceful or not?  Was this attack all about religion?  Who are we?  Did we do something to deserve this?  What don’t they understand about us?  What don’t we understand about them?

Deep down, these questions are about identity. We were having an identity crisis.

In the face of this crisis, Disney makes a movie.

To assist in the clarification of the American identity, they release the film Hidalgo (2004).  In it, an America encounters the other with an Arab face as Frank Hopkins and his mustang, Hidalgo, enter an endurance race across the Arabian Desert.   Americans are asking, “Who am I and who are these people called Muslims?”  Hidalgo answers these questions for the viewing audience by clarifying what we are against the Arab other.

In Hidalgo, Disney uses a mythologized version of history to present an innocent and morally upright America which finds strength in the virtues of egalitarianism, self-determinism, and cultural diversity. Click To Tweet 

The Myth-Making of Disney

The popular understanding of the term myth is “a story that isn’t true”—or even an outright lie.  This is not what myth means.  Truth is central to the idea of myth.  Myths  are stories that communicate a vision of a people and their understanding of the world.  Roland Barthe says that in myth a worldview, set of values, or an ethos, are presented as if they were part of the natural order of things.  These things are constructed, they are products of history, but they are powerful nonetheless, for they define a cultural reality—they articulate the truth according to a particular people, those who have adopted the story as their own. 

Myths are not always some ancient story about origins.  Religious figures, authors, politicians, artists, and journalists create and communicate myths as well.  When it comes to the creation of myths, Henry Giroux says “there are few cultural icons in the United States that can match the signifying power of the Disney Company.”

Disney wants to construct a collective identity from the American past.  It is a particular identity they want to create and they aggressively rewrite and mythologize history to do it.  This is almost always done in opposition to some other.

Disney is not unique in this approach.  We’ve been doing it since we were living in caves.  Richard Kearney says that crises of national identity “seek provisional resolution by displacing the internal conflict of us/them onto an external screen.  Hence, the need to identify outside enemies.”  The other against which identity is constituted is mythic, in the Barthean sense.  It’s presented as if it were part of the natural order of things.

For a time, America’s indigenous people filled the role of the other against which the national identity was constituted.  Because of its dynamic nature, the mythic other is subject to change.  This shift is evidenced in Hidalgo where it is the Arab other that represents alterity and the Sioux is brought to conform with notions of self-identity and sameness.   

Hidalgo: Reimagining Wounded Knee

The inciting incident in the film Hidalgo is the Battle of Wounded Knee after American soldiers misunderstand the Sioux Ghost Dance to be a display of aggression. This event has been altered and mythologized in the film.

The Ghost Dance.  Historian Jeffrey Ostler explores Sioux life as they lived in the economy of the reservation which replaced their dependence on the buffalo herds.   Reservation life, says Ostler, was a “project of control.”  The Sioux experienced a systematic attack on their way of life which reflected a “commitment to cultural genocide” on the part of the American government.  The Sioux believed that the Ghost Dance, which lead to the events at Wounded Knee, would bring about a cataclysmic event that would restore the buffalo and remove the whites from the earth.  Ostler says it “is best understood as an anticolonial movement.” Disney empties the dance of its “oppositional character” and turns the events of that fateful day in American history into a new story.

In the film Hidalgo, the Disney version of the event has been mythologized—emptied then selectively refilled—to show that the events at Wounded Knee were accidental.  The meaning of the Ghost Dance has been distorted in the film.  Rather than an anticolonial movement, it is made passive.  It is a prayer “to their ancestors for help.”  Where Ostler emphasizes the Sioux as active agents, Disney chooses to present them as passive victims.

It serves Disney’s purposes in the film to put partial blame on the U. S. Army for the tragedy.  Therefore, some of the soldiers clearly hold racist attitudes which are expressed in derisive comments and maltreatment of the Sioux.  Yet the massacre is primarily attributed to misunderstanding.  The soldiers are nervous because they mistakenly believe the Ghost Dance to be a prelude to an uprising.  The first shot fired is accidental as an impatient soldier attempts to disarm a deaf boy who did not understand the soldier’s intentions.

By presenting the events at Wounded Knee as accidental, American innocence is maintained and yet, the results are suitably tragic to have a significant impact on the protagonist.  He must experience guilt for his participation in the events at Wounded Knee Creek. 

American Identity: Sioux Heritage

Frank Hopkins is the hero of the film.  In Disney’s mythology, Hopkins is America.  He’s a cowboy.  His strengths and character represent those that we accept as the essential characteristics of America and its people.  Significantly, Frank Hopkins is half Sioux and he is embarrassed by his Indian blood.  As an Army dispatch rider, it is Hopkins who delivers the orders from General Miles which say, “If they choose to fight, subdue them” and so he blames himself for the massacre.  Hopkins rides through the aftermath, the bodies of victims frozen in a grotesque tableau.   

This scene, which again emphasizes the Sioux as passive victims, is juxtaposed with a reenactment of the event in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show where they are presented as savage aggressors.  Buffalo Bill narrates the drama and describes how the U. S. soldiers were “outnumbered by warriors, but undaunted in spirit, the brave held their ground.” The juxtaposition of these scenes indicates Disney’s critical attitude toward this blatant revision of history present in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the racist assumptions which underlay it.

Disney is particularly critical of representing of the kind old Chief Eagle Horn as “the last of the wild hostiles, the red pirates of the prairies.”   Hopkins is a participant in the show and his continuous drunkenness indicates the guilt that he feels over his participation in the massacre of the Sioux and his denial of his Sioux heritage.  It is in the resolution of this identity crisis that Hopkins, and the American audience, will ultimately find redemption.

Hopkins’ is called to undertake the quest for his identity by Arab strangers and he reluctantly accepts.  Buffalo Bill has titled Frank Hopkins and his mustang Hidalgo as the greatest living endurance race champions of all time.  An Arab sheikh, who hears this label at a show in Europe, objects and insists that Buffalo Bill remove the title from this horse and rider or enter them into a thousand-year-old endurance race called The Ocean of Fire in order to back up this claim.

Dual Heritage, Dual Mentors

Initially, Frank refuses this call to adventure, but Old Chief Eagle Horn in the role of mentor addresses the truth that Hopkins has been avoiding.  He tells him that he can resolve his identity crisis in the Arabian desert.  Hopkins reluctantly accepts the challenge.

On leaving New York harbor, Hopkins stands on the deck of the ship as it slowly passes the Statue of Liberty.  The scene is shot as if to show a conversation with the statue-as-mentor.  We can assume that she tells Hopkins to remember what America stands for.  She knows for it is engraved on her pedestal.  

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!  

Hopkins is on his way to “ancient lands” where he will encounter “storied pomp” and Lady Liberty implores him to remember that America does not present masculine “conquering limbs” to the world, but a maternal light of “world-wide welcome.”  Here again, we see the perpetuation of a mythology which presents America in a way that is completely contradicted by the events at Wounded Knee and yet is to be accepted, by the audience, as truth.

Frank Hopkins: Middle-Class Family Values

In his encounters with the other, Frank Hopkins, the embodiment of the American identity, is presented as morally upright which means, for Disney, that he adheres to a code of “family values.”

Because Disney’s world is “middle class in its portrayal of family values,” cheating and adultery are activities performed by the evil, and fair-play and chastity are practiced by the good.  Accordingly, Frank Hopkins is good and most of the Arabs in the film are evil.

Where Hopkins is inclined to help fellow riders who have fallen, the Prince, who rides the favored Al-Hattal, pays British soldiers to prevent Hopkins access to the well they guard.  The Prince’s actions, as well as those of several other Arabs who cheat, steal and betray, reinforce the idea that the Arab is capable “of cleverly devious intrigues, [and is] essentially sadistic, treacherous, low.” When Lady Davenport, a member of the British aristocracy and owner of a horse in the race, perceives that Hidalgo is a threat to win, she offers Hopkins sexual favors and a great deal of money for his withdrawal from the race.  She is later found to be conspiring with the story’s villain, Sheikh’s bastard nephew, to ensure the victory of her horse.  Frank’s refusal to cheat or throw the race for either money or sex shows a moral strength that is superior to that of both the Arabs and the British.

Although the moral code to which Hopkins adheres is based on the Judeo-Christian values, the writers have chosen that he is to be known as “The Cowboy” and the adulterous and dishonest Lady Davenport is given the title “The Christian Lady.”  This suggests more than just a secularization of the moral code, but also, in the reversal of meaning of the historical signifiers, a not so subtle hostility to Christianity. Thus, the American national identity is constituted against that of the other—Arab, British and Christian—and has been found to be morally superior.

American Values: Human Equality

Another piece of the American identity that the movie reinforces is the idea that we stand for human equality.  On disembarking in Aden, Hopkins’ immediately encounters a harsh, hierarchically structured society.  Just outside the port city, the caravan passes a group of black men chained together at the ankles.  Frank makes eye contact with a little boy walking in his chains of unusual size.  One of the Arabs says to Hopkins, in a mocking tone, “Have you never seen a slave market, Mr. Frank?”  Then he laughs.

That slavery in America was abolished only a few decades previous, and that Hopkins had certainly seen the inhuman treatment of the Sioux Indians is forgotten.  Of these facts, the audience is expected to have, what historian Mike Wallace calls, “selective amnesia.”  In the Disney mythologized history, Frank’s feelings at the sight of the boy in chains are the same as those of the audience—revulsion—because this could never happen in America.  History has been “sanitized” for the sake of this new mythology.  Frank eventually buys the boy and takes off his chains, and although he runs off at first, he returns to help Frank of his own volition.   

When he arrives at the Bedouin camp, Hopkins discovers another helper has been assigned to him, a goatherder who has been accused of stealing milk.  For this minor crime, he was given the choice to either “serve the infidel” or lose his left hand. Like the slave boy, the goatherder decides to join with the infidel.

The goatherder consistently attempts to establish his superiority over the boy, which he is entitled to according to the structure of Arab society. On these occasions, Hopkins asserts his egalitarian values and insists on the equality of the two.  Thus, he embodies the inscription communicated to him by Lady Liberty as he began his quest.

However, in Hopkins’ treatment of his two assistants lies an assumption of white superiority which is assumed even in the midst of his insistence that black and Arab are equal.  The audience accepts as natural the Orientalist sentiment articulated by Edward Said in Orientalism where he says that the white man “belonged to, and could draw upon the empirical and spiritual reserves of, a long tradition of executive responsibility toward the colored races.”

It is not only blacks and petty criminals who are treated poorly in Arab culture.  It is clear that women are degraded as well when the Sheik declares that “On cold nights, my wives sleep in the stable tents so that Al-Hattal, his champion horse, is comfortable and appeased.”  The plight of women in Arab society is primarily explored through the Sheik’s daughter, Jazira.  If the Prince, riding the Sheikh’s own Al-Hattal, wins the race, she will be added to the Prince’s harem as his fifth wife.  In this position, she will be no better than a slave.  For this reason, she secretly assists Hopkins and Hidalgo.  Thus, the team of misfits now also takes up the cause of women.

However, because the Sheikh loves his daughter, he secretly allows her to ride even though it is forbidden for her to do so.  The implication is that traditional Arab ways are contrary to expressions of paternal love.  Because the Sheikh is conflicted between his love for his daughter and the Bedouin tradition, he is endeared to the American audience.  This is an example of what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls historicism, the idea that history is a developmental process and all cultures are evolving to the same enlightened end, but they do so at different rates. The Sheik’s conflict between tradition and love, suggests he is a little further along than the rest of Arab society, and American society with its egalitarian values is much more advanced than the Arab society.  The historical fact that women suffrage would not be won in the United States for another thirty years is ignored.   

American Values: Self-Determinism

Another aspect of American identity that is emphasized in the film Hidalgo is self-determinism.  In the film, fatalism dominates the Arab view of the world and therefore the race.  There is no doubt in any of the Arabs’ minds that Hopkins will perish in the race, for Allah would not allow an infidel to succeed.  That Hidalgo will eventually win the race casts dispersion on the idea that such a thing is ordained by God.

The conflict between Hopkin’s self-determinism and Arab determinism is before us continually.  Although Hopkins is inclined to help another rider whose horse was killed, he was forbidden to do so because it is Allah’s will that the horse fell. The goatherder explains to Frank, “There are those who are chosen to be winners and those chosen to be losers. Allah chooses thus, and it is written.”  At the beginning of the race, a rider, named Sakr, says that he thought an infidel’s presence in the race is sacrilege, but, he says, “I trust in Allah that He’ll roast some of us like sheep on a spit before the sun sets today. You shall be among the first.”  Later, when he encounters Sakr near death in quicksand, Frank refuses to allow him to die.  Although Sakr protests that it is Allah’s will that he perish, Frank argues “What about your will?  What about your horse’s will?  Seems to me that’s what will get you across a finish line.  Only then is it written.”  Frank pulls him free against his objections, but Sakr learns a valuable lesson.  Later, he sacrifices his own life to save Frank.

In the argument between American self-determinism and Arab fatalism, the former is clearly presented as superior as is evidenced by Sakr’s complete conversion to its precepts.  Another example from the film occurs when Jazira asks Frank, “How did you tame [Hidalgo]?”  To which he answers, “I didn’t.”  In America, not even a horse is denied the freedom to write his own destiny.

Hopkins’ Struggle for Identity

A dominant theme of the film challenges the British and Arab belief in the idea of racial superiority.  Hidalgo is a Mustang, a breed which Lady Davenport correctly explains as having “mixed blood of Spanish origin.”  The contest is presented as a competition between the “impure animal” that is Hidalgo and the “purest equine bloodline in the world.”  At the top of this list is Al-Hattal—“equine perfection.”  Frank is warned that should Hidalgo attempt “to cover an Arab mare, it would be viewed as a most inviolable blemish.  The foal would need to be destroyed before touching the ground.  As would the offending sire.”  Frank Hopkins’ mother was a Sioux Indian and so he too is of mixed blood.  The antagonists in the story are both Arab and British, each who believe in the importance of pure bloodlines, not only in their horses but in themselves.   

It is in the contest between the pure and mixed bloods that Frank addresses his own identity.  His meeting with Chief Eagle Horn after he is challenged by the Arabs takes place in a dark compartment in the train symbolizing the suppression of Hopkins’ Sioux ancestry.  Chief Eagle Horn tells him that he is called far rider not because of his many long distance races, but because he “rides far from himself, and wishes not to look home.”  The chief suggests that Frank is lost until he accepts his Sioux ancestry because right now he is “neither white man nor Indian.”  With this wisdom, the old chief imparts the gift of a necklace on which hangs the circular Sioux symbol first seen among the bodies at Wounded Knee.  Later, the goatherder, in ignorance, creates a flag using the Sioux symbol from the necklace.  Hopkins’ identity crisis is resolved in the climax of the story.

Hidalgo has been injured in the final battle against the Sheik’s bastard nephew and the race has taken its toll on both horse and rider.  It is clear to Frank that he must euthanize Hidalgo.  In his sorrow and his exhaustion, he begins to sing the song of the Ghost Dance.  As he sings, he hallucinates and he sees his Sioux ancestors dancing around him.  At this moment the Prince rides up and ridicules Hopkins for ever thinking that he had a chance against him.  The Prince declares, “I am born of a great tribe—the people of the horse.”  At that moment Frank embraces his Sioux heritage with pride and says, “So am I.”  With this internal victory over himself, Frank can finish the race.  To symbolize his complete acceptance of his Sioux blood, he rides toward the finish line without a saddle or cowboy hat.  As they race at full speed to the finish line, the Prince uses a whip to drive on Al-Hattal, but Frank only whispers “Let ‘er buck.” Under the banner of the Sioux symbol, Frank and Hidalgo win the race.

Ironically, in the resolution of Frank’s identity crisis, and in the resolution of the American national identity of which he is representative, the identifiers of self-determinism and egalitarianism have been undermined.  Thus far the film has consistently asserted that it is neither God’s will nor the blood in one’s veins that determines destiny or worth.  Yet at the climax of the story, we are presented with the idea that blood does, in fact, matter.  It is the blood of America’s Sioux that is superior to Arab blood and which determines Frank’s destiny.  This determinism and blood superiority is inconsistent with the other major themes of the story.  However, because it conforms to the dominant theme of the film—the superiority of Western culture over that of the East—the inconsistency is easily ignored.

Crisis Resolved:  American Superiority Maintained

All the themes in the film, which are grounded in comparisons between American and Arab cultures, fall under the overarching theme of American superiority.  In each comparison—Cowboy/Arab morality, egalitarian/hierarchical society, self-determinism/fatalism, and American diversity/Arab purity—the controlling theme of the film, and therefore the fundamental aspect of America’s identity, is its superiority over the Arab.

What Edward Said described as the cultural hegemony of Europe is true of America.  The idea of America is a collective notion identifying “us” Americans against all “those” non-Americans, and indeed it can be argued that the major component in American culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside America: the idea of American identity as a superior one in comparison with all non-American peoples and cultures.  Giroux says that Disney’s world is largely “colonial in its production of racial differences” and this is apparent in the film Hidalgo.  We need look no further than the fundamental story: an American defeats one hundred Arabs riding purebred Arabian horses.

At the conclusion of the race, the Arabs are shown to have learned some valuable lessons from the cowboy and tacitly admit American superiority.  When they first meet, Hopkins was refused a handshake from the Sheik because to touch an infidel would negate his powers to tell the future. In the end, the Sheik offers a handshake admitting that he could never tell the future in the first place.  This is an admission of human equality and therefore an agreement with the egalitarianism America espouses.  Sakr, formerly so committed to Allah’s will, writes his own destiny and willingly give his life for Hopkins.  His conversion to American self-determinism is so complete he is willing to die for it.  At the race’s conclusion, the Prince admits that purity of blood is not the only measure of a horse, and by implication of a man, when he says, “It is a magnificent horse.”  Not only did Hopkins learn of the superiority of his Sioux blood and culture, but the Arabs also learned about the inferiority of theirs.

As in other Disney films, the racism in Hidalgo “is defined by both the presence of racist representations and the absence of complex representations of . . .  people of colour.”  The Arabs are portrayed as arrogant, dishonest, disloyal, racist and incredibly bad shots with a rifle.  Yet, Disney presents these, what Said calls Orientalist, ideas as “morally neutral and objectively valid.”

But not only has the Arab been inaccurately presented.  The historical “cowboy and indian” are nowhere to be seen in the film.  Disney has taken a mythologized notion of the adventurous cowboy and the most noble, mythic qualities of the American Indian and has put them into Hopkins to be representative of America.  The film clearly communicates regret at the killing of the Sioux at the beginning of the story, but they offer no such sentiments for the killing of Arabs.  This contradiction is apparently acceptable because of the myths which have been constructed about these groups within the film, as well as in popular culture.  The Sioux have been cast as the innocent victim; the Arab as the brutal victimizer.  The filmmakers are critical of the mythologized history presented at the Wild West show, yet feel no compulsion to direct their critical eye at their mythological presentment of Arab culture.

Even though they claim the film is based on a true story, it is clear that Disney’s priority when telling the story of Hidalgo is not historical veracity but the construction of a national identity.  In fact, Frank T. Hopkins’ race across the Ocean of Fire may have been completely fabricated.  Fellows Basha and CuChullaine O’Reilly, founders of the Long Riders Guild, claim that the that the legend of Hidalgo is “the biggest Wild West hoax in American history.”  Still, the film’s screenwriter, John Fusco, insists that his story is based on rigorously checked historical sources.  The extent to which Disney has diverged from historical truth in the Hopkins’ story is debatable, but that they have altered historical truth about America’s dealings with its indigenous people is not in question.

Disney does not consider this abuse of the past—“they freely and disarmingly admit to its falsification, pointing out that this is, after all, just entertainment.”  Of the Hidalgo debate, Nina Heyn, Disney’s Executive Director of International Publicity said

No one here really cares about the historical aspects. Once a picture has been shot, people move on to others. We’re like a factory. It’s like making dolls. Once the latest doll is out we go onto the next one. If it transpires that the historical aspects are in question I don’t think people would care that much. Hidalgo is a family film. It has little to do with reality.

Three years after 9/11, the film Hidalgo was released. In the name of entertainment, the film’s purpose is to clarify the American identity in the face of this monstrous threat presented by the attacks. Click To Tweet

Three years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the film Hidalgo was released.  In the name of entertainment, the film’s purpose is to clarify the American identity in the face of this monstrous threat presented by the attacks.  In the film, the American audience comes face to face with the Arab other.

To this end, Disney offers a comparison between America and the Arab other—American versus Arab morality, egalitarian versus hierarchically structured society, self-determinism versus fatalism, and racial purity versus cultural diversity.  In every case the Arab is found to be inferior, thus the monster has been defanged.

Because its purpose is to create a collective identity against the other, Disney perpetuates the Orientalist vision of “difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’)” (Said).  In doing so it fails to use history as a site of a cross-cultural, cross-categorical conversation between America and other peoples.  When history is a means to understand the other, rather than as a means to identify oneself against the other, we develop what Richard Kearney calls “narrative sympathy” which enables “us to see the world from the other’s point of view.”  It is unfortunate that with its incredible power to influence culture, Disney has chosen to close to avoid meaningful conversation in favor of a racist monologue.