Disney's Hidalgo: A New Hollywood Low

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Toth (D.Phil., Oxford ) has written extensively about the history of Arabia before oil and is editor of H-Levant, an online discussion network dealing with the Arab east.

Response of Anthony B. Toth to John Fusco (posted 2-28-04)

The irony is too delicious to pass without comment: the screenwriter whose "based on a true story" horse race that never took place rises in florid indignation and calls my column, "slanted and poorly researched." Please. Mr. Fusco should get off his high horse.

But let me address the complaint. At issue is the following sentence: "Nowhere in the site is Fusco or Disney mentioned, and in fact Fusco has attempted to hide his connection with the site. The sleaze is piled higher than horse manure."

First, some background. When frankhopkins.com went live, before the release of Hidalgo, the site was relatively small, with just a few pages. It included (and still includes) the following:

According to the U.S. Remount Service Journal of 1936, [Frank Hopkins] competed in and won over 400 long-distance races, including a legendary 3,000-mile endurance ride across the Arabian Desert in 1890 on his mustang stallion, Hidalgo.

An upcoming Walt Disney movie is to be based on his legendary adventures in the saddle.

Please note: on the web site, it is a "Walt Disney movie," but in Mr. Fusco's response, it magically transforms into "my film." In addition, although Mr. Fusco says he never denied owning the web site, he never explained why, if that was the case, he didn't just come out and say so on the web site. Instead, it says: "this site is sponsored by The Horse of the Americas Registry & IRAM - the Institute of Range and the American Mustang." This reticence seems puzzling, considering Mr. Fusco's willingness to do many press interviews to promote the film.

Also puzzling is the whole question of whose name pops up after doing a "whois" search for the owner of frankhopkins.com. According to the Long Riders' Guild, John Fusco of Morrisville, VT was listed as the owner of frankhopkins.com starting March 14, 2003. Then on May 10 that year the owner became David Zahn. The Long Riders' Guild web sit stated that "embarrassing historical discoveries prompted Mr. Fusco to attempt to disguise his direct involvement in the Hopkins website." Mr. Fusco (somewhat hysterically) said I "borrowed" the guild's accusations. I did nothing of the sort. I looked at the evidence and expressed my disdain at a whole range of dishonest and questionable actions surrounding the Hidalgo imbroglio. I stand by my article, and only concede that instead of saying that Fusco and Disney were not mentioned in the site, I should have said that there was no evidence on the site they were connected with it, despite the fact that clearly Mr. Fusco was connected, and he had been paid by Disney. I accept Mr. Fusco's assertion that Disney directly "never had anything to do with this site," but defend my suspicions at the time I wrote my piece. It seemed unusual that if Mr. Fusco indeed owned the site, he would have the names of the two horse groups listed rather than his own. In addition, I found it entirely plausible that Disney would fund a site (perhaps it did, indirectly) to promote in a slick and glowing manner the central character in one of its soon-to-be-released movies, especially since the Frank Hopkins "stories" so central to Mr. Fusco's script were coming under such withering attack by the experts.

But that is not all. Mr. Fusco says his name was removed as owner because he "values his privacy." I did a "whois" search for frankhopkins.com just now (March 28, 2004, 12:43 p.m.). Here is the result:

John Fusco (johnf@FrankHopkins.com)
655 W.Vistoso Highlands
Tucson, AZ 85737

Um, "privacy"? It only took a few minutes of googling to learn that Mr. Fusco does not live full time in Tucson, but resides also at Red Road Farm in Morrisville, VT (pop. 2009), not far from Stowe. I also learned the name of his wife, son, and adopted brother in the Lakota tribe. Oh, and there was the sad tale of the intestinal problems of his horse, Little Fox -- all disclosed to the world by the "private" Mr. Fusco.

But let us all calm down and be reasonable. A big reason for all the Hidalgo hue-and-cry was Mr. Fusco's and Disney's insistence on using those five little words: "based on a true story." Historians take their subject very, very seriously and take an almost proprietary pride in promoting and defending their areas of study. Or, to paraphrase Mr. Fusco: "You can say anything you want about me, but I'll have to ask you not to treat my profession that way." I would ask Mr. Fusco to imagine if a fellow screenwriter wrote a script "based on a true story" about a Lakota warrior who raced a Mustang from Moscow to Murmansk, and based his account on one very flimsy source, one that all of his Lakota brothers and sisters said was a fraud. Would he stay silent and say, "It's only a movie." Or would he promote the truth?

Finally, I have noticed that frankhopkins.com has become a horse of a different color. In the past weeks there have been added many new pages dealing with the Spanish Mustang, material that was not on the site before Hidalgo opened in theaters. I leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions about why the site is becoming less about Frank Hopkins, the galloping liar, and more about the horses he loved and fought to preserve. (Note also the emphasis in Mr. Fusco's response: In two instances he mentions Spanish Mustang before Frank Hopkins.) In any case, the shift in focus is a welcome transformation, and I wish Mr. Fusco success with his horses and with his future engagements with history.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Sherry A. Cook - 12/11/2006

Who cares how true it was? Mr. Fusco is absolutely right! The movie was a WONDERFUL viewing experience that I enjoyed completely from beginning to end. OF COURSE it was mostly fiction, what horse was REALLY that smart??? I LOVED it and have watched it three times and will continue to watch it over and over again till I get tired of it. KUDOS on a great movie Mr. Fusco

Kaitlyn M. B. - 6/30/2006

It seems as though Mr. Toth is intent on slandering the name of Mr. Hopkin, as is valid through the fact that he supports his opinions with that of a website that is also intent on slandering the name of Mr. Hopkins. Taken as is from http://www.thelongridersguild.com/hopkins.htm:
"For the latest news about Frank Hopkins' deceptions..."
It is a well known concept for any who may consider themselves a thoughtful debater that you can not back up a statement with another statement that is clearly biased. That is as if you were to realize you lost a penny, and immediately point the finger at, say, Johnny, though you did not see him actually steal the penny. You only assume it, and back up your opinions with the fact that your friend told you he was a crook. The fact that he is a crook is irrelevant to the fact that your penny is missing, because he may not have stolen it. If that analogy does not serve you well, I apologize. It is ulitimately clear to me, and so I do hope it is to you.

Adam J Garvin - 10/11/2005

I would like to comment that if Mr. Fusco would like to keep his address off of websites it's your duty, Mr. Toth, to help him with that wish... It is completly irresponsible and immature to go against someones wishes... Espically concerning privacy.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Do they now? Metinks the late Issac Asimov, who in addition to being a writer of science fiction was 1) a bio-chemist on the faculty of Boston University Medical School & as are many SciFi writers, 2) a student of history and would have agreed with Mr. Toth's statement. In "Prelude to Foundation," page 402 in the paper edition Asimov has one of his characters say, "You're naive, Hari. Or not a historian, which is the same thing."

Kylie Ann Pearl Paton - 12/28/2004

What day of the week and what number of the day will The Great Mouse Detective II: Ratigan's Revenge be out in two years in December 2006? What year and what month of the year and what day of the week and what number of the day will The Great Mouse Detective II: Ratigan's Revenge be finished? What's The Great Mouse Detective II: Ratigan's Revenge about?

Andrea Sue Wood - 9/8/2004

"In the early 1970s, two young adventurers named Nathan and Elly Foote started out of Argentina with the intention of riding across North and South America on their Argentine Criollos, a breed closely related to the Spanish mustang. Unfortunately at the Texas border two of their horses died in quarantine due to a faulty drug administered by the USDA. It might have been the end of the journey, but Gilbert Jones, a Spanish mustang breeder from Oklahoma stepped up and offer them two of his horses, Mal de Ojo and Indio Blanco. Right away the mustangs proved themselves to be as tough and loyal as the horses that they had lost, carrying their new owners from the Rio Grande all the way to Alaska."

Taken from Modern Mustangs and Mustangers Do the Distance

Compiled by Beverley J. Davis

Andrea Sue Wood - 9/8/2004

BTW the link you posted goes to the American Hospital Association.

Andrea Sue Wood - 9/8/2004

hahaha...I'm sorry but yes, arabs are great distance horses, but they are not always the best....you say the horse in the story wouldn't hold up, I'm sorry but a spanish mustangs can and do hold up to arabs in endurance. Go to the AERC site and lookup the horse Geronimo's Warrior a 14 year old Spanish Mustang stallion that has won the Jim Jones Stallion Award in the AERC for the last 4 years in a row and is at the top of the list for this year so far also. Geronimo carried his rider 2240 miles in 2000, 2075 miles in 2001, 1995 miles in 2002, 2200 miles in 2003, and 1425 miles so far this year in 2004. Geronimo isn't the only one in 1989, Chief Yellow Fox, owned by Kim Kingsley and a descendent of SMR 3 Yellow Fox, one of the foundation sires of the Spanish Mustang Registry and Horse of Americas, competed in the AERC and won the Jim Jones Award for the most miles, 1450 in the 1989 season. The previous year he had gone 800 miles in 17 rides.

In 1989, Chief Half Moon, also owned by the Kim Kingsley came in second with 1300 miles in 22 rides, while the following year he made 1250 miles in just 14 rides.

Martha Grisham and Cholla Bay certainly racked up the miles between 1988 and 1991. The AERC listed them as completing 2,920 miles in 56 rides. That’s almost 1000 miles for three years running.

Another AERC team of note is Dutch Pete and Steve Huffman. Together they have competed successfully in numerous 100 milers and came in between 13 and 14 hours in the 1990 Tallahala Marathon. The next year they placed 7th nationally in a series of endurance rides. The AERC lists them as accumulating 2,030 miles between 1988 and 2001.

Stacie Funk on three different horses has really made the miles go by. Between 1992 and 2001, she accumulated 1,195 miles on Chief Red Arrow, 830 miles on Dun Right and 1,795 miles on Rodeo Ace.

Don't get me wrong I love Arabs, but they are not the only "marathon runners" in the endurance world. As for bone density I'm sorry but sm's have great bone density...many spanish breeds do. It's funny that you quote the U.S. Remount service saying that about arabs...it was also the U.S. Remount Service that listed Hopkins as a great long distance rider and said he had won the race in arabia...just some food for thought...I guess their a reliable source when they say something you agree with...

Robert Harbison - 8/17/2004

The Controversy has centered around one man (and not the may you think): CuCulaine O'Reilly is the founder of the Long Riders Guild, and is a Muslim and a proponent of the 'purity' of the Arabian Horse.

His campaign to destroy the Frank Hopkins 'myth' can be boiled down to one thing, his offense that Hidalgo, a mixed-blood American horse could have bred with Arabian horses.

BTW, anyone who doubts the Hidalgo Legend should look up an old copy of Blood of the Arab.

John H Fillmore - 8/15/2004

To anyone well acquainted with the late 19th century American West, a few flaws readily apparent in the first few minutes of Hidalgo convinced me I wasn't going to be witnessing an accurate depiction of an historic event.

I won't even bother discussing the Wounded Knee scene. These days it is politically correct to consistently depict the American Indian as a victim, and nearly every utterance by a "movie" Indian contains some sort of philosophical wisdom intended to make non-Indians feel either guilty or stupid.

Aside from that, it is my understanding from several sources that the folks at Disney researched Buffalo Bill Cody quite carefully prior to filming, yet I thought it odd that they incorporated a scene with Hopkins serving as interpreter for Cody and some of his Indian employees. Cody, of course, served as an army scout and interpreter himself for several years prior to becoming an entertainer. While we are not told of their tribe, it would have made little difference to Cody, who was well versed in Indian sign language.

Anyway, I gave up worrying about historical accuracy after that and began to enjoy the movie for what it is: Billy the Kid versus the Sword of Damocles with a little Raiders of the Lost Ark thrown in for good measure.

Gil Dickens - 8/8/2004

I did some googling to find the story of Frank Hopkins, and certainly became swept in the controversy. Although it's somewhat disappointing that "Hildalgo" is probabably not based on fact, it's probably more disconcerting that Hopkins is quite often branded as a liar or tall tale teller at best. I have not studied enough of mustangs, Hopkins, or this facet of the West to know for sure, but to cast what I consider strong condemnation of all that the film embues is at least disproportionate to what it attempts. My family has seen the film, and the story is certainly one of the best, and I think well-filmed of the Old West since perhaps Toombstone. Certainly there were probably many falsehoods (or liberties taken) in Tombstone, particlularly about the OK Corral accounts, but I think somehow it hit the "feel" of the Old West from many points. I didn't see such indignation over that film, and I'm sure it wouldn't be politically correct to diminish the performances of Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell (who incidentally are a couple of my favorites). It also would not surprise me if the accounts of the series Deadwood on HBO were more fiction than fact if properly researched, but I can imagine those characters, Hickock, Calamity Jane, and particularly the villanous bar owner, acting just the way they are portrayed...both profound in verse and profane in the most common frequent, cursing. You can read the letters of US Civil War combatants on both sides to see just such a display of this eloquent yet conflicted language. Did they say those exact verses? Probably not. But when I watch Deadwood, or Hildago for that matter, history comes alive and I can get a glimpse or feel for the tone of that period. And isn't that what history is about? Yes, the Hildalgo controversy is about a movie that is "based on a true story", which it is probably not. But what a marvelous movie, that captures the independent spirit of the Old West, the tale tellers and fiction of the Old West shows, and the characters that were prominent in that period of our American experience. This movie certainly caused me to brush up on some history for that period...long distance riding, poney express, mustangs, etc. If it takes a fictionalized account to do that, I welcome that avenue. Again, isn't this what history is about, finding the truth for ourselves and at the same time discovering something in ourselves from that experience? If this film caused 1000 16-18 year olds to do what I did, and weigh the controversy, and come to some conclusions about that period, then I think it was worth it despite it's basic false pretenses. I know what the purists will say, that 1000 16-18 saw it and did not do the research and took it at face value. But we can't prevent that. There will always be people that take impressions at face value. When I watched Wyatt Earp w/ Kevin Costner I knew that he had done criminal things as a young man, but somehow the movie made the character seem more realistic and human to me than the Hugh O'Brien character of my childhood. And that doesn't negate the positive things Earp stood for in the end. To think that my grandfather from that era probably knew of Earp firsthand and was 18 when Earp died is exciting to me. What a transition during that period from the Old West to cities and industrialization. A great part of the lore of the Old West comes from tall tales and heroes larger than life, or larger than they were. As the editor of the Shinbone Star in Ford's "Liberty Valence" says to Senator Stoddard, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". I'm not suggesting that here, but it does have a place in our understanding of the Western experience in lore and fact. I guess I've taken the long road in saying... don't go too hard on this movie, sure be critical of it's portrayal of the story as fact, but it's a well filmed tale of the Old West that displays a lot of heart and values of strength and determination. And I'll bet Frank Hopkins showed some of that courage, depite his tall tales, when he defended the Mustangs and their preservation. That much is documented anyway. I worry sometimes in our search for truth in today's society that we have to totally destroy an alternate viewpoint, and cast dispersions on all that it conveys when some mistruths are unravelled in order to advance an opposing viewpoint. I give the director of Hildalgo low points for a "movie based on a true story" but high points on an Old West account that sincerely tells a story of courage and stamina that we want to believe drove the Old West as part of our American experience good and bad (including Wounded Knee) and is as entertaining as any account of the Old West in recent times. I was in Gettysburg PA this weekend, and held a Colt Civil War-era revolver, and realized why Vigo Mortensen wouldn't possibly have been able to reload a Colt 1861 Army model revolver nearly as quickly as he reloaded the Colt Peacemaker of the 1873 variety (accurately portrayed in the film), a model that arrived only a dozen years later. Isn't that worth something?

B A Jarniga - 8/5/2004

Well Done!! I'm so glad other people have realized this whole story is the worst kind of Hollyweird claptrap.
I ran across your wonderful site while doing some research on the Hopkins myth. I have also visited The Long Rider's site and read the information they present. As an observer, I have to agree with you that Disney and Co have butchered history once again. When the movie came out, I did not rush to see it because the whole premise seemed farfetched---you see, I have Arabian horses, I am a student of their history and I know that there is very little chance of this supposed race ever taking place. 3000 miles?? Bull!
Also, here is a point for you: although the dictionary may say a "thoroughbred" is any horse of pure breeding, a HORSEMAN will tell you that the Arabian is only refered to as a purebred. In correct equestrian conversation, a thoroughbred refers only to the English, Irish or Amarican horse registered in that country's jockey club registry. A horse of 100% Arabian blood is called a "purebred". It is the only breed of horse that claims this destinction. (see www.aha.org for more info)Here are some more facts if you are interested......The United States Remount did years of testing on the Arabian horse versus the "native" breeds and they could never match the Purebred Arabian in a distance competition. Genetics are the reason then as it is now. The Arabian has more dense bone, a higher hemoglobin count than other breeds, and have larger lungs and heart than horses of much greater size. Simply put, they are the marathon runners of the horse world. There is no way the horse in the story could have held up to this kind of test, much less finished it. Personally, I think these days PETA would be on anyone who attempted it an a heartbeat. :)
Happy Trails!

maxi wimmer - 4/26/2004

oh well, i am late again.
but i can't just not post here.

as mr. toth already mentioned, thoroughbreds can be of any race. there are irish thoroughbreds, english thoroughbreds, brandenburg thoroughbreds and many more. so is the arabian thoroughbred or the berb (hopefully this is the right word in english - berber in german).

when you just say thouroughbred, most people think of american standardbreds and english thoroughbreds, the world's fastest (sometimes :D) racinghorses.

those famous stallions that jen campell was referring to, are known as the fathers of the english thoroughbred. but this is just a very small part of the "universe" of thoroughbreds. you cannot say that arabians are no thoroughbreds, simply because you think that the term thoroughbred is restricted to the european english thoroughbred.

the real and first thoroughbreds were the arabian horses! from these, all the other thoroughbreds developed through breeding with "common" races that lived in the other countries.

ok, enough babbling...just wanted to say that.


please excuse my bad english. i am german.

Anthony B. Toth - 3/14/2004

Thanks very much for the lesson. However, thoroughbred (note the small "t") in any dictionary, when relating to horses, is synonymous with pure bred, with a recorded ancestry. Thus, it is perfectly correct to call a bedouin's prize horse (or camel!) a thoroughbred. Of course you are correct that the usage with a capital "T" refers to the breed you mentioned.

Jen Campbell - 3/13/2004

Thanks for the enlightening info on Hidalgo. One current and historical correction...

Bedouins ride ARABIAN horses, not THOROUGHBREDS.

A Thoroughbred horse is a european breed of horse with it's origins in the 12th century (mainly in England) from crosses between sturdy european horses and Arabians, to develop horses of exceptional speed and endurance.

By the early 1800s the only horses that could be called "Thoroughbreds" and allowed to race were those descended from horses listed in the Jockey Club's General Stud Book.

The pedigree of every single Thoroughbred in the General Stud Book can be traced back father-to-father to one of three stallions, called the "foundation sires." These stallions were the Byerley Turk, foaled c.1679; the Darley Arabian, foaled c.1700; and the Godolphin Arabian, foaled c.1724.

Don't feel bad, this is a common error among folks that aren't familiar with the subject.

Anthony B. Toth - 3/10/2004

Visit the longriders' guild web site and you will find reference to the Nina Heyn quote and many others. The quote originally appear in a story by Peter Harrigan in the Arab New:

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 3/10/2004

Actually, whatever lack of bluntness--not to be confused with sophistication--you perceive in flackspeak as it appears in print is generally a consequence of editorial filtering, though selectivity can cut both ways. Having worked as a journalist on and off, I have been absolutely stunned from time to time by what I was told, and then frustrated when I couldn't get something delicious into print!

My favorite occurred during a briefing given to my publisher and me by a group promoting a light rail system in St. Louis in the early 1980s. The whole crew was there to put on a dog-and-pony just for us, since they knew we were doing a piece and had a rep for not kowtowing to the local boosters and was loaded for bear, whichever it seemed it was going to do in the woods.

When I finally could start asking questions, first on my list was about the impact their project would have on the city's already inadequate bus system's finances. To which one of the movers and shakers replied with contempt in his voice: "Only poor people ride the bus, and poor people don't vote." I kid you not, I am not making this up.

Obviously things then went downhill, since a whole cross examination--or an attempted one--flowed from that! My publisher, who rarely had up to then met a capital project to "save the city" he didn't like, prohibited the quotation. Anyway, I have consistently found that power is usually arrogant or clueless, and often the media can be as well.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/9/2004

Where did you find that quote from Nina Heyn at Disney?

It certainly fits the actions of all the studios in relation to history, but it sounds far too blunt to be on the record.