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Horse Sense

Flick Chick


Published September 1, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

There's a new twist in a fascinating cowboy story with Vermont cinema connections: Legend has it that Frank T. Hopkins was born in Wyoming just after the Civil War to a Sioux mother, reportedly the daughter of a chief. In his twenties, he began a 1799-mile endurance race from Galves-ton, Texas, to Rutland, Vermont, on what he describes as a "wild Indian pony" named Joe. The date: September 6, 1886.

The contest, in which he triumphed over 56 fellow riders, took 31 days and earned him $3000. Hopkins then joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and performed around the world. In 1890 he won an 1800-mile desert race through what is now Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria on a pinto stallion named Hidalgo -- which is also the title of a 2004 Touchstone movie about that adventure, written by Lamoille County screenwriter John Fusco. Viggo Mortensen stars as the intrepid Hopkins.

Ever since the film opened in March, Fusco has been in the crosshairs of Basha and CuChullaine O'Reilly. The controversial Kentuckians contend that Hopkins was a fraud, a charge repeated on their website, in a book they wrote and on a History Channel program.

"I was long dogged by detractors with Middle Eastern connections who [claimed] my movie hero was not a true horseman," Fusco explains in an email. "Then, out of nowhere, a couple of elderly Vermont dairy farmers came forward to say they were friends with Hopkins, to validate him and to produce photographs."

Fusco saw those snapshots of Hopkins on July 19 when he visited the Shoreham farm of Walt and Edith Pyle, octogenarians still active in breeding and racing thoroughbreds. The couple befriended Hopkins in the late 1940s and can attest to his superior equine skills even at an advanced age.

Earlier that decade, Hopkins spent time in Vermont judging the annual 100-mile race sponsored by the Green Mountain Horse Association and writing articles for The Vermont Horse and Bridle Trail Bulletin.

Hidalgo, a creature of the land, has been linked to a creature of the sea. According to Fusco, who raises Indian "paint" ponies, Mortensen recently discovered that at the New England Aquarium in Boston, "One of the last northern right whales left in the world was named Hidalgo after our movie."

Meanwhile, after a long hiatus, another of Fusco's scripts appears to be on the front burner again. Previous plans for Rebels, his profile of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, fell apart last year when the producers decided contemporary Slovakia would be the perfect setting for a movie that takes place in 18th-century New England.

Fusco is now in talks with a new director, whose name can't be publicized until it's official. But the mystery man has already met with Senator Patrick Leahy about shooting in Vermont and will scout local locations when he finishes post-production on his current project in London.

David Mamet is not normally associated with military movies, unless you count his satirical Wag the Dog screenplay about jingoism for political ends. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker, a Goddard College graduate with a getaway home in Cabot, seems positively fascinated by the macho men of Delta Force.

His inspiration for the recently released Spartan, an indie he wrote and directed, came from the 2002 autobiographical book by a founder of that elite Army counter-terrorism unit. Mamet and Shawn Ryan, whose TV cop show "The Shield" has earned some Emmy Awards, are now co-authoring a CBS dramatic series on the same clandestine-warrior topic.

Spartan, by the way, stars Val Kilmer as a secret agent who has to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a top U.S. government official. Mamet regulars such as William H. Macy and Vermont native Neil Pepe have smaller roles -- as does Alexandra Kerry, progeny of the Democratic presidential candidate. She portrays a bartender.

Ice, by Art Bell of Burlington, won the "Best Short Experimental" category at the 2004 Woods Hole Film Festival in Massachusetts. Judges at the Cape Cod event, held from July 31 to August 8, apparently appreciated his meditative, four-minute digital video study of skaters on a wintry Lake Champlain.

Did the honor involve a statuette? A plaque? A certificate? "An email," Bell acknowledges with brevity befitting the recipient of an award-winning short.


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