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From the Horse's Mouth

Flick Chick

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John Fusco's Hidalgo is a box-office hit, but the Lamoille County screenwriter has been plagued by controversy over the Touchstone release that opened in early March. Viggo Mortensen stars as Frank T. Hopkins, who in 1890 reportedly rode a mustang to victory in a 3000-mile endurance race across terrain that now encompasses Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria.

But Fusco says a Kentucky couple, Basha and CuChullaine O'Reilly, is behind a media blitz to discredit the film. In an email interview, he accuses the pair of launching "a jihad against the movie (and me personally)."

At issue is the truthfulness of the biographical material on which the film is based. The O'Reillys insist that Hopkins fabricated his assertions of being part-Sioux, a dispatcher for the Cavalry and a performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. In reality, they say, he was a white man who dug subway tunnels in Philadelphia and wrangled horses for the Ringling Brothers Circus. They even charge that the desert race itself, supposedly an ancient tradition called Ocean of Fire, never existed.

Hopkins definitely did participate, however, in an annual three-day, 100-mile dash through Vermont sponsored by the Green Mountain Horse Association. In the 1940s, he penned articles for the Vermont Horse and Trail Rider Bulletin that detailed his legendary exploits in foreign lands.

Fusco speculates that CuChullaine O'Reilly may be worried that Hidalgo has eclipsed a potential Hollywood deal for his own book about a long-distance horse adventure. This is a guy whose life story rivals Hopkins' for improbability. "He converted to Islam in the '70s and took the name Asadullah Khan," Fusco says. "He founded the Long Riders Guild after a 1000-mile race out of Pakistan. The catalyst for his ride: He was escaping narcotics police whom he claims planted heroin on him." O'Reilly also claims to have once lived in Afghanistan, where he was mistakenly jailed as a Soviet spy and left for dead in a ditch.

But has he fostered negative publicity about Hidalgo that stretches all the way to Saudi Arabia? Fusco says he has received several threatening phone calls from that country, where the film is likely to be banned for its enlightened plot. "The woman protagonist sheds her veil at the end," he says. "Fatwa on the writer!"

All in all, Fusco is puzzled that "this little ol' horse movie from Disney could ignite a holy war."

The pre-emptive invasion of Iraq helped motivate Jay Craven's current project. He wants to understand what combatants have endured in virtually all the wars involving Americans since the early 20th century. The Peacham filmmaker is shooting a documentary -- tentatively titled Double-Edged Sword -- that he hopes will "separate the politics from the human perspective" of armed conflict.

The venture, which Craven began two months ago, is particularly timely given the approaching presidential election. "The voices of vets have suddenly become prominent in a way you wouldn't have expected a few years ago," he says, referring in particular to the campaign of war-hero-turned-protestor John Kerry.

Craven, 53, plans to focus primarily on Vermonters and the lasting psychological issues that plague so many vets. On camera, one subject reveals that he was recently revisited by his terrible memories. "I interviewed a World War II soldier in Vergennes," Craven recalls. "He told me he'd been ice-fishing and saw some of the guys who never made it back walking toward him in the snow, 60 years later."

Another angle that intrigues Craven is how the Pentagon finds fresh cannon fodder. "Part of the ‘No Child Left Behind' Act mandates that the names and addresses of ninth graders have to be provided to the government for future military recruitment," he says. "In Brattleboro, recruiters go into the schools five times a month. I talked with a Vietnam vet working on counter-recruitment."

Craven, who visited Vietnam in 1970 with a student organization, returned to Hanoi this January for eight days. He anticipates shooting a feature there based on literature by local writers and veterans back home who tell "their contemporary stories," he says, "perhaps with flashbacks to the war."

The opportunity for this endeavor comes through Marlboro College, where Craven teaches film studies. The school contributed funds to the project from a Freeman Foundation grant for establishing cultural ties with China and Vietnam. Craven still has to raise another $200,000.

Meanwhile, Craven continues to look for vets to appear in Double-Edged Sword. He doesn't have any who served in Somalia or in 1991's Operation Desert Storm. "I also hope to find soldiers who fought on the other side in all these wars," he notes. "It's important to consider a rainbow of experiences."

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