After our experience together on OCTOBER SKY, Casey Silver sent me a script, sort of an eastern western called HIDALGO by John Fusco, about an endurance racer named Frank Hopkins. Endurance races on horseback apparently had avid followers in the late 1800’s. Frank Hopkins is legendary in some circles although his achievements are the subject of much controversy. Did he actually win the race across the “ocean of fire?” There are many to claim that the race didn’t even exist, which seems likely with a little research. The truth of the story didn’t matter that much to me. I’d have been just as happy calling it pure fiction, not “based on a true story.” I wanted to shoot a western and this one was a western with a twist.
Morocco is a beautiful country and very welcoming to film crews. The desert is particularly alluring. We shot six days on most weeks, but on Sundays I would have my driver deliver the Toyota Landcruiser to the front of the hotel with a full tank of diesel. I’d drive into the desert until I had close to half a tank and then turn around and try to remember which dirt track I had taken. The only advice my driver gave me was to stay away from the Algerian border. Not a problem.
Viggo Mortensen was an absolute joy to work with. He slept on the roof of his trailer with his saddle and bedroll. We had to constantly keep him late and call for him early and he never complained. He came with no entourage and drove himself to location. When his stunt man fell off the horse and jammed his elbow, Viggo did the stunt himself, riding bareback at full speed.The Moroccan desert floor is literally covered in fossils from the late Carboniferous and early Permian eras. Sadly, a lot of the fossil beds are being mined and polished to be used as table and counter tops. On the Sunday drives I could easily get to places far off the driveable tracks that the fossil hunters hadn’t bothered with.
Rex Petersen, the horse trainer, refused to wear a dust mask in the Moroccan desert because the horses couldn’t see his face and wouldn’t obey the commands. Halfway through the shoot Rex contracted dust pneumonia and had to go back to Cedars Synai for treatment. After struggling for a week with horses that wouldn’t listen to anyone but Rex, we moved the entire production to the California desert, out near Dumont Dunes and Cuddeback dry lake. The California desert cut seamlessly with North Africa, in a few scenes we literally cut back and forth between the two locations.
I challenge anyone to tell me which desert is which. The end of the race with Frank riding Hidalgo into the surf in what is supposed to be Damascus was shot at Guadalupe Dunes County Park west of Santa Maria, California. The Syrians who swarm around the victorious Hidalgo as he wades out of the surf were mostly migrant farm workers in robes and turbans. Incidentally the filming of the race finale took place only a couple of hundred yards from the site of Cecil B. Demille’s TEN COMMANDANTS set which is still buried beneath the Guadalupe dunes.
HIDALGO didn’t escape the usual struggle to retitle the film. Most people mispronounce the title, pronouncing it HILDAGO, or HILDALGO. I even heard HIGALDO. We wanted to call the picture OCEAN OF FIRE, the name of the legendary race. Michael Eisner, who was then in charge, refused, saying it sounded like a romance novel.