In the waning days of the Wild West, Frank Hopkins was a dispatch rider, a horseback messenger who carried battle orders and other important papers for the U.S. Army. He and his mustang named Hidalgo also became famous for winning long distance endurance races that were popular at the turn of 20th century: so famous that their exploits attract a challenge to compete in the biggest endurance race of them all.

Transported to another place and culture, this rough-hewn American becomes an object of curiosity; but his horse draws even more attention ... and derision ... from the fiercely proud owners and riders of the purebred Arabian horses.

Viggo Mortensen, famous for playing the warrior Aragorn in The Lord of The Rings trilogy, stars as the cowboy Hopkins.

"In a lot of places in the United States and certainly even more places around the world the image of the cowboy has become, for some people, a negative one," he says. "To be a cowboy or even the word cowboy implies a stubborn kind of individual whose individualism depends on putting down other people's individualism. The cowboys I met and liked and learned from are not that way. Whatever he's ignorant about, which is a lot, he makes up for that by being at least somewhat curious about it and with that comes a certain amount of respect. I guess that's the beginning of being respectful and open-minded."

However, the story of Hidalgo, as it unfolds in the film, has become embroiled in controversy. It uses traditional Hollywood shorthand for some characters that reminds some viewers of age-old negative Middle Eastern stereotypes; and there are suggestions that Frank Hopkins and Hidalgo never competed in an Arabian endurance race ... not to mention actually winning. Director Joe Johnston dismisses those allegations as part of a longstanding feud among thoroughbred horse breeders; but the filmmaker admits to using 'dramatic license' to embellish the adventure and he shies away from the "based on a true story" tagline with which the film is being advertised.

"What I prefer to say is it's 'based on the life of ...' The facts are that he was a dispatch rider and endurance racer, that he was invited to Saudi Arabia to take part in this race, which he did and ended up winning the race," he says. "Those facts are not disputed. We have fictionalized other elements of the story to make it more entertaining because we never set out to make a documentary about this guy's life."

Egyptian-born Omar Sharif co-stars as the Bedouin sheik who invites Hopkins and Hidalgo to compete.

"My part is, of course, an old Arab prince. Old Arabs is what I do now," Sharif says. "When you are young and you sell tickets at the box office, they take you even if you are not right for the parts. I played a German colonel in a film called The Night Of The Generals. I played all sorts of incredible things having come off my camel in Lawrence Of Arabia. I was thrust into Russian poets and all sorts of characters; but when you get old and you are not a box office star, they take you for the thing that they believe you are right for."

The sheik has a beautiful young daughter named Jazira who rebels against the way women are treated in that time and place. London-born newcomer Zuleikha Robinson plays Jazira and she says her research could not determine the truth of the character's complaints because, as Robinson, explains, she could find very little written about the lives of women in the Arabian peninsula of a century ago.

"Jazira gains her freedom, even if it's just as simple as being able to remove her veil. Both Jazira and Frank Hopkins teach each other so much. He is in denial of who he is ... and he goes on this great adventure and discovers who he is. Then there is Jazira's character who wants to be who she is, but she can't. That's where I think they open each other's eyes a little bit," she says.

Hidalgo was shot in Morocco, using many of the same locations where David Lean filmed Lawrence Of Arabia more than 40 years ago.