A new Disney movie claiming to be “based on a true story” has many critics calling for the Mouse House to recant.

“Hidalgo,” starring Viggo Mortensen as an American cowboy who participates in a 3,000-mile horse race through the Arabian Desert, is being billed as “based on a true story,” but historians and others are claiming no such race ever existed. The movie is scheduled for a March 5 release through Disney’s Touchstone Pictures.

“The idea of a historic trans-Arabian horse race ever having run is pure nonsense … simply from a technical, logistical, cultural and geopolitical point of view,” said Dr. Awad Al-Badi, director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, in a recent Arab News article.

“Since they are claiming it is a true story, it’s astonishing that neither Disney nor their scriptwriter have even bothered to check records in established museums and archives or tap a single credible academic,” he told the paper.

“Hidalgo” was directed by Joe Johnston (“October Sky,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”) and written by John Fusco (“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” “Young Guns”).

Fusco is standing by his research, and thus far Disney has refused to withdraw the “based on a true story” label. Previews for the movie at the film’s Web site still bill the story as fact-based.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is among the groups calling for Disney to remove the true-story label.

Rabiah Ahmed, CAIR’s communications coordinator, told EthicsDaily.com that CAIR had asked Disney to remove the label, as well as certain statements in the movie that misrepresented Arab cultures.

Ahmed said CAIR had been told by Disney that some of the offensive statements had been removed, but CAIR was unsure of how many.

A review of “Hidalgo” in the Hollywood Reporter said: “What should be a ‘Rocky’-like tale, where the point is not winning but enduring, gets turned into a shamelessly cheesy exercise in Western ingenuity and spirit trumping Arab treachery and intolerance.”

But the movie has kicked up the greatest sandstorm over the veracity of any such 3,000-mile horse race, not to mention the truth—or lack thereof—behind the cowboy who allegedly participated.

The most in-depth look at the claims of cowboy Frank Hopkins—who said he and his mustang, Hidalgo, won the race in the 1890s—comes from the Long Riders’ Guild, an “international association of equestrian explorers.”

The guild has devoted a special section of its site to the “Hidalgo Hoax,” and Basha O’Reilly, one of the guild’s founding members, has written a 13-page article in which she portrays Frank Hopkins as one of the Old West’s greatest charlatans.

O’Reilly refers to Hopkins as a “counterfeit cowboy” and says he faked his horse-racing credentials as well as his friendship with “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

She also fingers screenwriter John Fusco as a man who has “shown sympathy for dubious characters of the Old West.” She referred specifically to Fusco’s scripts for the “Young Guns” movies and his take on Billy the Kid.

Fusco, however, has maintained that his story is credible.

“I’ve been researching Hopkins’ life for more than 12 years now and compiled research from more than 15 well-respected historians that verify this story,” he told the Hollywood Reporter (as cited in the O’Reilly’s article).

Fusco also set up a Web site, www.frankhopkins.com, which is billed as “the official tribute site to America’s legendary endurance rider.” The site builds a case for the authenticity of Hopkins and his claims. It does not seek to rebuff specific charges leveled by the Long Riders’ Guild.

Some critics have claimed that Disney wanted to snatch up a “horse story” after Universal Pictures hit pay dirt with “Seabiscuit,” and that Disney failed to make sure it had a legitimate story.

Nevertheless, “Hidalgo,” rated PG-13 for “adventure violence and some mild innuendo,” is still poised to break out of the gate.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

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