Bright Lights Film Journal

Want Fact with That? Disney’s Hidalgo and the Commodification of Myth

Enjoy your myths — that’s what they’re there for

As the famed classicist Edith Hamilton wrote in her seminal work Mythology, “Myths are early science, the result of men’s first trying to explain what they saw around them. But there are many so-called myths that explain nothing at all. These tales are pure entertainment … stories [that] are early literature as well as early science.” Biblical stories, a flat earth, the Loch Ness monster, and Frank T. Hopkins’ exploits — all tread that fine but invaluable line between entertainment and fact, and human culture seems to be just fine with that. As it is, science so often gets in the way of what we want to believe, which is another way of saying that it’s boring. That is why we call them “cold, hard facts.” There’s little warmth in scientific truth, whereas myth, especially if it can make us out to be the spawn of gods or unbeatable horsemen from the Western hemisphere, makes us want to be partakers in the tale.

Envision an enormous scale, then drop myth and legend on one end and history and science on the other. Which would weigh the heaviest on your mind when it comes to solving problems as important as the shape of the earth, or as esoteric as the winner of a long-distance horse race between Frank “Laramie Kid” Hopkins and his opponents in the Middle East?

The answer is not as easy as you may think. Although humankind has labored for centuries to build a body of knowledge that cancels out superstition, legend, and fantasy in favor of the tangible concretizations of hard science, it doesn’t take more than a simple look around the world today to see that we are still swept up in the machinations of myth.

For some, it is difficult to believe Disney’s claim that its cinematic adaptation of Frank T. Hopkins’ life, Hidalgo, is a true story, because Disney is the preeminent mythmaker of the last century, from Pinocchio, Cinderella, and Mulan to the controversial Pocahontas, Aladdin, and Jungle Book. Even before one reel of Hidalgo hit the silver screen, authorities like the Long Riders’ Guild and writer David Dary — a former journalism professor and author of numerous books on similar subjects — were sounding the revisionist alarm. Yet, in light of the more perplexing conundrums — like whether or not the earth is flat, for example — you’d be forgiven for thinking Dary is a little too close to his subject when he says things like, “Hopkins’ so-called ‘true story’ may be the first major hoax of the 21st century perpetuated on the U.S. public.”

Then there’s the fact that the Arab News reporter who wrote the story is himself allegedly a member of the same Long Riders’ Guild that is protesting the film’s designation as a true story in the first place. Which is not to say that Harrigan and Dary are off-base in their accusations. Far from it: they are too close to their subject, and seem to be forgetting that this is simply a case of two mythmaking machines — Disney and Hopkins himself, who seemed to have been as deeply invested in perpetuating his possibly fictitious exploits — competing for the imagination of the populace.

In fact, whether or not Disney’s Hidalgo is a true story or Hopkins was actually the great horseman he claimed to be, is irrelevant. What is relevant, especially as far as myth and Disney cinema is concerned, is the heroic journey, where one or several figures overcome overwhelming odds to emerge victorious in the end. That has been the basis for most popular legends, from David’s defeat of Goliath to Frodo and company’s annihilation of Sauron, from Luke Skywalker’s triumph over Star Wars’ evil Empire to Ronald Reagan’s conquest of the so-called Russian Red Menace (in film and politics). Frank Hopkins and his trusty mustang, Hidalgo, overpowering superior Arabian horses and Bedouin riders in a 3,000-mile race across the Ocean of Fire just happens to be one more entry in the mythical register. It seems that when it comes to true stories, science and history just can’t compete with the power of myth.

Indeed, science can often be easily brushed aside, even when its truth is incontrovertible. For example, when it comes to something as certifiable as the shape of the planet, science can easily take the backseat to a more aggressive driver. Take the case of Charles K. Johnson, who once offered this brazenly unorthodox scientific proclamation to Robert J. Schadewald for Science Digest: “The facts are simple, the earth is flat.” That was in 1980; not 1890, or 1090 for that matter, but the year Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency of the United States. We had already been to the moon by that time, and had plenty of film of a round earth, but Johnson could not be swayed. Why? Because, in his own strange words, “Wherever you find people with a great reservoir of common sense, they don’t believe idiotic things such as the earth spinning around the sun. Reasonable, intelligent people have always recognized that the earth is flat.”

According to Johnson, astronomers, geologists, and natural historians have been busy practicing deception, not building scientific and historical foundations on which culture can progress. But Johnson — like Dary and Harrigan, albeit more extremely — was a bit too close to his subject too. He wasn’t a scientist himself; he was president of the Flat Earth Society until his death in 2001. Further, Johnson’s conception of that all-important “common sense” was limited and exclusive: subscribers to the Flat Earth Society had to sign contracts agreeing not to defame the group as a prerequisite for membership. Yet, while many saw him as a fraud, many others saw him as a prophet, enough to send him plenty of cash and support for his unorthodox efforts.

What matters in the end is who manufactures the myth.

Disney knows this is the real issue at stake. Consider the unabashed counter-argument proffered by their executive director of International Publicity, Nina Heyn. “No one here really cares about the historical aspects,” Heyn explained to Harrigan in the same Arab News story. “Once a picture has been shot people move on to others. We’re like a factory. It’s like making dolls — once the latest baby 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.”

Reality, it seems, can ironically get in the way of the story that people would rather hear. Consider the aforementioned Ronald Reagan, who, like Frank T. Hopkins, was equal parts human and cowboy-myth. Reagan was known to fib about important events at length; he sometimes (through strategy or memory loss, none could tell) mixed his media, conflating or confusing situations from the movies with those of real life. His infamous WWII anecdote, delivered to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in 1983, involved a damaged B-17’s captain who told his trapped gunner, “We’ll ride it down together,” after the rest of the crew had bailed out. Except it wasn’t real at all: it came from the film A Wing and a Prayer, a fact that most ignored when Reagan explained that the noble captain was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor himself. It was Reagan’s idea to name America’s missile defense system — an apparatus that to date has cost millions of dollars, though its accomplishments are more science fiction than fact — after Star Wars, a film that George Lucas based partially on Joseph Campbell’s theories of myth. The fact that his career was built on these overt mediations didn’t seem to bother anyone too much. After all, Reagan got his start doing play-by-play for the radio station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, for baseball games that he didn’t actually attend. And not only was he probably the most influential president of the United States over the last few decades, but his legacy has evolved America’s mythmaking machine to the point that television programs that simply star non-professional actors are called “reality” shows.

So what keeps myth and reality from blending seamlessly into another, from melding so convincingly that the myths that people believe today can become the science they implement tomorrow?

In a word, nothing. Which brings us back to the esoteric but nevertheless polarizing figure of Frank T. Hopkins. As far as Wild West legends go, only Bill Hickock and Billy the Kid have more of a reputation. And while no one is disputing the power of Hopkins’ myth, when you stir millions of dollars, multinational corporations, and historical traditionalists into the pot, it will reach a boil ahead of schedule. In a world at war, others might not blink twice at any movie that purports to be telling a true story, especially if the words “based on” precede such a proclamation. To argue, then, about historical transgressions — especially those that concern something as mythical as a Wild West cowboy appearing in cinematic form at multiplexes across America — is to forget the lessons of Reagan, Disney, and Johnson’s Flat Earth Society.

The power of myth — especially when it is commodified as a film, toy, or war machine — is sometimes more important than the scientific nuts and bolts, the historical why and when. Nina Heyn’s brutal corporate honesty has scores to say on that subject. Myth, of course, is there to sell you on something; it is, recalling Hamilton, as much entertainment as it is science. After all, the earth may not be flat, but that doesn’t mean that those disaffected by science’s continual interruption of consensual fantasy won’t go around stating that much, if only to erect minor rebellions to the cold, hard histories they tire of so quickly.