Local journalists, prior to asking stars for autographs, tend to ask them meek questions at roundtable interviews. But when Viggo Mortensen visited Seattle recently, a reporter for a local Islamic paper, The Rising Star, put the actor on the spot with his editors' laundry list of boo-boos in Hidalgo's depiction of Muslims. "Did they feel that their culture was respected?" the soft-spoken Mortensen inquired. "What was it that we got wrong?" The journalist rattled off the supposed inaccuracies: The film mentions somebody's fifth wife, while the Koran permits only four; one girl has her face veiled but her hair uncovered; one Muslim claims to foretell the future; and characters are threatened with hacked-off hands for stealing milk and castration for getting caught, fully clothed, with a sheikh's daughter. Comparing Hidalgoto Indiana Jones, the reporter asked whether such liberties were included "to spice up the movie."
"No offense to Indiana Jones, but I think that this story," Mortensen replied, "tries to respectfully deal with Muslim and Lakota culture as well as cowboys. . . . These are people, they're not stereotypes." He politely asked where his absent accusers were from (Brunei) and gently suggested that customs may differ in various regions of far-flung Islam. Here I found myself admiring the star's diplomacy—Aragorn for secretary of state!
Mortensen champions Hidalgo as a culturally enlightened movie. "The history of Hollywood has been to sometimes inadvertently trample other cultures," he continued. "It's pretty unique for Hollywood to have an American protagonist go to the Third World, especially right now, [and] behave with a bit of dignity and respect and open-mindedness. As an 8-year-old, I'd walk out of this movie thinking Arab people were cool and interesting."
Ever the sensitive horseman, Mortensen noted that cowboys have had to struggle with negative stereotyping, too. "Bush and Reagan [have] done the same thing with cowboys, and that's why [people] around the world, [they] hear the word 'cowboy' and they think 'asshole' immediately—evil, selfish, destructive. And it's not necessarily so. It's nice to see the cowboy shined up a little bit." T.A.