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Disney's Hidalgo: A New Hollywood Low

Response of Anthony B. Toth to John Fusco (posted 2-28-04)

The irony is too delicious to pass without comment: the screenwriter whose "based on a true story" horse race that never took place rises in florid indignation and calls my column, "slanted and poorly researched." Please. Mr. Fusco should get off his high horse.

But let me address the complaint. At issue is the following sentence: "Nowhere in the site is Fusco or Disney mentioned, and in fact Fusco has attempted to hide his connection with the site. The sleaze is piled higher than horse manure."

First, some background. When frankhopkins.com went live, before the release of Hidalgo, the site was relatively small, with just a few pages. It included (and still includes) the following:

According to the U.S. Remount Service Journal of 1936, [Frank Hopkins] competed in and won over 400 long-distance races, including a legendary 3,000-mile endurance ride across the Arabian Desert in 1890 on his mustang stallion, Hidalgo.

An upcoming Walt Disney movie is to be based on his legendary adventures in the saddle.

Please note: on the web site, it is a "Walt Disney movie," but in Mr. Fusco's response, it magically transforms into "my film." In addition, although Mr. Fusco says he never denied owning the web site, he never explained why, if that was the case, he didn't just come out and say so on the web site. Instead, it says: "this site is sponsored by The Horse of the Americas Registry & IRAM - the Institute of Range and the American Mustang." This reticence seems puzzling, considering Mr. Fusco's willingness to do many press interviews to promote the film.

Also puzzling is the whole question of whose name pops up after doing a "whois" search for the owner of frankhopkins.com. According to the Long Riders' Guild, John Fusco of Morrisville, VT was listed as the owner of frankhopkins.com starting March 14, 2003. Then on May 10 that year the owner became David Zahn. The Long Riders' Guild web sit stated that "embarrassing historical discoveries prompted Mr. Fusco to attempt to disguise his direct involvement in the Hopkins website." Mr. Fusco (somewhat hysterically) said I "borrowed" the guild's accusations. I did nothing of the sort. I looked at the evidence and expressed my disdain at a whole range of dishonest and questionable actions surrounding the Hidalgo imbroglio. I stand by my article, and only concede that instead of saying that Fusco and Disney were not mentioned in the site, I should have said that there was no evidence on the site they were connected with it, despite the fact that clearly Mr. Fusco was connected, and he had been paid by Disney. I accept Mr. Fusco's assertion that Disney directly "never had anything to do with this site," but defend my suspicions at the time I wrote my piece. It seemed unusual that if Mr. Fusco indeed owned the site, he would have the names of the two horse groups listed rather than his own. In addition, I found it entirely plausible that Disney would fund a site (perhaps it did, indirectly) to promote in a slick and glowing manner the central character in one of its soon-to-be-released movies, especially since the Frank Hopkins "stories" so central to Mr. Fusco's script were coming under such withering attack by the experts.

But that is not all. Mr. Fusco says his name was removed as owner because he "values his privacy." I did a "whois" search for frankhopkins.com just now (March 28, 2004, 12:43 p.m.). Here is the result:

John Fusco (johnf@FrankHopkins.com)
655 W.Vistoso Highlands
Tucson, AZ 85737

Um, "privacy"? It only took a few minutes of googling to learn that Mr. Fusco does not live full time in Tucson, but resides also at Red Road Farm in Morrisville, VT (pop. 2009), not far from Stowe. I also learned the name of his wife, son, and adopted brother in the Lakota tribe. Oh, and there was the sad tale of the intestinal problems of his horse, Little Fox -- all disclosed to the world by the "private" Mr. Fusco.

But let us all calm down and be reasonable. A big reason for all the Hidalgo hue-and-cry was Mr. Fusco's and Disney's insistence on using those five little words: "based on a true story." Historians take their subject very, very seriously and take an almost proprietary pride in promoting and defending their areas of study. Or, to paraphrase Mr. Fusco: "You can say anything you want about me, but I'll have to ask you not to treat my profession that way." I would ask Mr. Fusco to imagine if a fellow screenwriter wrote a script "based on a true story" about a Lakota warrior who raced a Mustang from Moscow to Murmansk, and based his account on one very flimsy source, one that all of his Lakota brothers and sisters said was a fraud. Would he stay silent and say, "It's only a movie." Or would he promote the truth?

Finally, I have noticed that frankhopkins.com has become a horse of a different color. In the past weeks there have been added many new pages dealing with the Spanish Mustang, material that was not on the site before Hidalgo opened in theaters. I leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions about why the site is becoming less about Frank Hopkins, the galloping liar, and more about the horses he loved and fought to preserve. (Note also the emphasis in Mr. Fusco's response: In two instances he mentions Spanish Mustang before Frank Hopkins.) In any case, the shift in focus is a welcome transformation, and I wish Mr. Fusco success with his horses and with his future engagements with history.