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In his first movie after Lord of the Rings, Viggo Mortensen portrays Frank T. Hopkins as he rides on his horse, Hidalgo, in The Ocean of Fire long-distance race. How much of the movie really happened? Let’s find out…

About the movie Hidalgo

Joe Johnston has directed some great movies, including the recent holiday-themed film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms that just came out.

But, he’s got a long history in Hollywood. If you’re a Based on a True Story Producer, you’ll know a few of his films we’ve covered on minisodes like Captain America: The First Avenger or The Rocketeer.

Then there’s other classics, the original Jumanji, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and Jurassic Park III.

Okay, maybe that last one isn’t really that much of a classic film.

Today, we’re going to learn about one Joe Johnston’s films that, as of this recording, is the only film he’s directed that’s rooted in history.

Learn the true story behind Hidalgo

Our movie today begins with some chilly scenery. We see trees, sun, and snow-covered fields. Then there’s shots of cold, brisk water covered by ice. When we hear a whistle, we see the head of a beautiful brown and white mustang.

That’s when we see Viggo Mortensen’s character, Frank T. Hopkins, enter the movie for the first time as he pets the horse that the movie is named after. In the next scene, we get a bit of context for what’s happening as we see Frank riding Hidalgo and catching up to another rider. The other man mentions something to the effect of, “I didn’t ride 1,100 miles to come in second place!”

The race is on and, of course, Frank wins.

After this, we see the text on screen, “Based on the life of Frank T. Hopkins.”

The movie doesn’t give us any sort of indication of what race this might be, and unfortunately that’s not something we can really figure out by looking at it from history.

And this is where the major controversy about this film begins.

You see, even though the movie says it’s based on the life of Frank T. Hopkins, there’s a lot of people who would disagree with that statement. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that it’s based on the stories Frank T. Hopkins told about his own life.

On one hand, this isn’t really anything new.

We hear amazing stories all the time that make their way to the big screen. But, for the most part, those stories have been able to be verified in some way through accounts other than the word of the one who claimed they happened.

Sure, some people like T.E. Lawrence whose name became famous by the film Lawrence of Arabia might’ve embellished their story a bit. But, we can verify a lot of it through documentation. Even stories like Hugh Glass, who we learned about in The Revenant are mostly believed — even if there wasn’t anyone around to document or verify it.

When it comes to Frank T. Hopkins, though, things get a little more difficult because you’d think we would have scores of documented proofs about the things he claimed to have done.

But, we don’t.

For example, Frank wrote stories about he was a teacher to the infamous Billy the Kid, hung out with Teddy Roosevelt before he was President of the United States, served as inspiration for legendary western author Zane Grey, and was even a secret agent — and plenty more.

But … as it turns out, those are more likely than not, nothing more than tall tales.

We don’t even really know when Frank T. Hopkins was born. He claimed to have been born in 1865 in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. He even conflicted himself a bit by claiming two different distances from Fort Laramie in his own stories.

However, historians have struggled finding any documentation to prove that’s where he was born.

Of course, that’s not too surprising. It’s not like we have proof of everyone’s birth dates in the 1800s — especially in remote towns like Fort Laramie. For a bit of context, in 2010, there were 230 people living in Fort Laramie.

In the 1860s, Fort Laramie was little more than a station for the Pony Express.

So, even though we don’t know when he was born, we do know that Frank T. Hopkins existed — so, obviously he was born. Haha!

Going back to the movie, the next major plot point has Viggo Mortensen’s version of Frank head to Wounded Knee. It’s here that the movie tells us the year for the first time as we see text saying we’re at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29th, 1890.

Frank is a dispatch rider, taking a message we saw handed to him in the opening sequence to the commander there. For some reason, though, he doesn’t take it to the commander but instead hands it to a soldier that then must run across the camp to deliver it. Maybe the purpose of that is just so we can hear voiceover letting us hear what’s inside the message.

The message is to Major Whitside of the 7th Cavalry, and it says that General Miles is ordering a “solution” to the Sioux uprising. He’s ordered to disarm the Indians at once, and if they fight — subdue them.

Then, as Frank leaves the camp, we see one of the Indians carrying a rifle. One of the U.S. Cavalry soldiers tells him to give up his gun. An elderly tribesman comes by, saying that Black Coyote is deaf. He can’t hear your orders!

A struggle ensues, and the gun goes off. Then, all hell breaks loose as the soldiers open fire on the Indians.

That is true. Probably.

What the movie is showing here is what was referred to as the Battle of Wounded Knee. But, some have debated that name saying that it wasn’t a battle — it’s the Wounded Knee Massacre.

We don’t know for sure how the bloodshed started, but there is a version of the story that says it happened just like the movie shows. The Lakota tribe, which is one of the three major divisions of Sioux tribes, was at Wounded Knee when the 7th U.S. Cavalry tried to disarm them.

One of the tribesmen, named Black Coyote, was deaf and didn’t want to give up his rifle. In the scuffle, his gun went off and the Cavalry started shooting. The Lakotas tried to fight back, but most of them had been disarmed — and, in truth, they didn’t have many guns to begin with.

On the U.S. side, there were 490 men. 25 were killed, 39 were injured with six of them succumbing to their wounds later. For the Lakota, there were 120 men who fought. We don’t have exact numbers, but some estimates say 90 of the warriors were killed, along with another 200 women and children slaughtered.

To date, the Wounded Knee Massacre stands as the largest domestic massacre in U.S. history.

And the movie got the date correct. It was on December 29th, 1890. For the purposes of our story today, though, what’s not true is that Frank was at Wounded Knee Creek on that December day.

It is true that Frank claimed he was there, like the movie shows. But, historians haven’t been able to find any proof to back up the claims Frank made that he was at Wounded Knee when the massacre took place.

We have documentation from the events, including stories from the Indians who managed to survive the horrible event — but none of them mention Frank being there.

Back in the movie’s timeline, we see some text on screen that tells us we’re eight months after Wounded Knee and we’re at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. We hear J.K. Simmons’ version of Buffalo Bill announcing that the, “Proud 7th” was awarded 27 Congressional Medals at a place called Wounded Knee.

What the movie is referring to here as the “Proud 7th” is the 7th Cavalry. And as we just learned, it is true that the U.S. troops who were involved in the Wounded Knee Massacre were the 7th Cavalry Regiment.

As for the 27 medals, however, that number is a bit off. Some sources that I found said there were 20 Medals of Honor given out, while the official U.S. Army’s website lists 18 men receiving the award.

For a bit of comparison, a total of seven men in the 7th Cavalry Regiment earned a Medal of Honor for the Vietnam War.

Admittedly, the Medal of Honor was awarded more liberally in the late 19th century. But still, that number seems to be quite high for something that many historians consider to be a very one-sided engagement. In other words, it was, well … a massacre.

In the movie, we see Frank performing as one of the heroes of Wounded Knee for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He’s obviously not too happy about the role he plays, as evidenced by how drunk he seems to be all the time, but he plays it nonetheless.

It’s true that working for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was another claim of Frank’s. However, there’s also no documentation to prove it.

Dr. Juti Winchester was the curator of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming as the movie was being made. In a 2003 interview with the Saudi-based newspaper Arab News, she explained, “We were unable to find any Frank T. Hopkins in our database of known cast members, acquaintances, employees or friends of Colonel Cody.”

Back in the movie, it’s during one of these shows that we see Viggo Mortensen’s version of Frank get approached by an Arabian man named Aziz. He’s played by Adam Alexi-Malle and, along with his British colleague, the two convince Frank to take on a new challenge.

They talk about an amazing race called The Ocean of Fire. According to the pair, this is a race that’s taken place every year for more than a thousand years. It’s a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert, along the Persian Gulf and Iraq, across the sands of Syria to Damascus.

Frank, of course, decides to take Hidalgo to take on this, the ultimate long-distance race.

Now, I don’t want to be the cloud that rains on this parade … but, none of that is true.

Do you remember the year we saw in the movie earlier? It’s 1890.

Guess what? Iraq didn’t exist in 1890. The country of Iraq that we’re familiar with today was formed in 1919. The lands that make up the modern-day country of Iraq was owned by the Ottoman Empire in 1890 — an empire whose demise began in 1918 but didn’t officially collapse until 1922.

So, there’s no way this thousand-year-old race could’ve included Iraq like the movie claims. But, what if we gave the movie the benefit of the doubt and just assumed they were letting us know about the lands we’re familiar with now as Iraq? After all, it’s easier to say “Iraq” to give us an idea of where they’re talking about than to explain everything I just did about the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Still — it fails.

You see, there aren’t any records that any experts have been able to find about a man named Frank T. Hopkins ever entering onto Arabian sands. There’s also no record of a horse named Hidalgo taking place in The Ocean of Fire race.

Of course, there’s probably a good reason for that.

The Ocean of Fire race — isn’t real.

You’d think there would be some form of paperwork, documentation, or history that we could find about a race that was supposed to take place every single year for over a thousand years.

But, there’s not.

Frank made it up. Great story. But … not real.

And since that gives you an idea of how real the rest of the movie is, we could end this episode here. Of course, you’re free to do so — this is a free podcast and you can skip to the next episode in your queue of awesome podcasts to listen to.

But … before we do that, if you’re like me then you’re probably wondering: If Frank T. Hopkins wasn’t at the massacre at Wounded Knee, didn’t work for Buffalo Bill, and didn’t race in The Ocean of Fire race like the movie claims — what did he do?

I mean, other than make up some very tall tales about his own life, that is.

Well, the sad truth is that we just don’t know a lot about the real Frank T. Hopkins. A big part of that is because we can’t really trust most of the things he wrote. A big part of that is because of the things he wrote most, if not all, start to fall apart when you dig deeper into the story.

We don’t even really know when he was born. Maybe it was in 1865 as he claimed or maybe, as some historians believe, he was really born in 1884. That’s quite a big difference and would’ve made him just six in 1890 during the timeline of the movie.

And while Frank didn’t work for Buffalo Bill, we also know in 1926 he held down a job in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania working for the company digging the subway system. In fact, for all we know, Frank may have never even lived in the west — he may have dreamed all those stories up without ever living anything close to them for real.

Well, maybe.

Some believe the closest Frank came to riding in long-distance races was when he worked for Ringling Brothers Circus handling their horses.

Still others believe that perhaps Frank did everything he wrote about, it’s just that we don’t have any documentation to prove it.

And that’s certainly possible. There are countless stories throughout history that haven’t been documented. There’s no way we can know about them all. After all, how can we prove something we can’t prove? Hah!

As for Frank T. Hopkins, probably the biggest, gaping hole that I found in the documentation for his stories had to do with all the long-riding races he claimed to have been a part of.

You see, Frank’s claims span over 400 races. To be more specific, those races include one in England, three in Germany, another three in India, four in Italy, another four in Russia, yet another four in Singapore, five in France, 11 in Mexico, 14 in Mongolia, 38 in Japan, 68 in Argentina … and last, but certainly not least, a whopping 289 races in the United States.

That’s 444 total races, if you were counting.

For all that time spent racing horses, the historians and researchers who have spent years digging into the validity of Frank’s claims have found little to no proof that those races ever happened or that Frank was ever involved in them.

In fact, for someone who claimed to have made a career riding horses over long distances and winning high-profile races, you’d think there would be at least one photograph of Frank sitting in the saddle of a horse. But there’s not.

We do have photos of Frank, just not riding a horse during one of his many long-distance races he claimed to have won.

And if we’ve learned anything from the internet about people who like to make outlandish claims — pics or it didn’t happen.

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