Walt Disney and Hidalgo – A Decade of Deceit
In February, 1964 Walt Disney (above) informed a trusting public that the story he was about to show them was “based on the life of a real person.” That claim was later revealed to be false.
Soon after the Walt Disney Studio announced it was going to make a movie about Frank Hopkins in 2003, representatives of the History Channel contacted the Long Riders’ Guild seeking advice and assistance. These cynical television editors expressed concern that even though Hopkins claimed to have won more endurance races than anyone in history, to have been the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, to have rescued Billy the Kid, and to have made an equestrian journey from Germany to Mongolia, no evidence could be found to substantiate any of these or dozens of other equally implausible claims.
Having agreed to investigate Hopkins, the Guild sought the help of more than eighty historians, academics, diplomats, scientists, authors and equestrian experts in five countries. This unprecedented international effort quickly revealed that the counterfeit cowboy had perpetrated the most elaborate and destructive equestrian myth in modern history.
Nothing Hopkins claimed was true.
He had never ridden alongside Buffalo Bill. He had instead deserted his wife and children during the Great Depression so as to engage in a bigamous marriage with a younger neighbour. He had never won any endurance races. After he left his family penniless he earned his living delivering ice and digging tunnels. He didn’t own a ranch at Fort Laramie. He boarded with his girlfriend’s mother on Long Island.
|In this 1920s newspaper account Hopkins mentions his Canadian wife and their many children, whom he later abandoned. The account also provides one of the counterfeit cowboy’s many tall tales, but goes on to state that having laid aside his six-gun the former gunslinger had taken up employment digging a subway tunnel.|
Hopkins had been able to peddle a series of elaborate fantasises because a naďve press had failed to ask for any proof. The list of Hopkins’ victims included many major newspapers, several magazines, famous authors such as J. Frank Dobie, and the Walt Disney Studio. One such victim was noted free-lance writer Anthony Amaral. Even though he had been warned by the Library of Congress and the Editor of Western Horseman magazine that there was no evidence to support Hopkins’ claims, Amaral published a false story which later served as the inspiration for the Disney film, Hidalgo.
The letter on the left is addressed to free-lance writer Anthony Amaral. It was written by the Editor of Western Horseman magazine, who rejects Amaral’s faith in Hopkins mythical “Oceans of Fire” race across the Arabian Desert.
The letter on the right is also addressed to Amaral. It was sent by the Library of Congress and states that there is no evidence to support Hopkins’ claims.
Once the Guild and its academic allies uncovered and documented the extent of the Hopkins Hoax, it offered to provide all of the evidence to Disney CEO Michael Eisner. That offer was never acknowledged.
Defending Hopkins and Hidalgo
Instead the studio went on the offensive.
John Fusco, the screenwriter of Hidalgo, told the Hollywood Reporter on March 13th 2003, "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."
Fusco's claim was repeatedly ridiculed by academics, authors and various types of experts.
Here are a few examples.
"There is absolutely no record of any horse race in the past staged from Aden!"
Ghalib Al-Quaiti, the last ruling Sultan of Yemen.
"Did this man Hopkins say anything true?"
Dr. John Gable, Executive Director, Theodore Roosevelt Association.
"Hopkins' claims are so outrageously false that one wonders why the Disney people were attracted to this material at all - except of course the constant propensity to make money under any conditions available. One need only peruse the mass of material purporting to deal with the Ogallala Sioux and Hopkins' claims regarding them to see that almost anything can be acceptable to the money-mad titans of Hollywood. .Hopkins should have been awarded the World's Greatest Liar award."
Dr. Vine DeLoria, Jr., leading Native American scholar, retired professor emeritus of history at the University of Colorado and author of many acclaimed books.
"Yes, the Hopkins story is exciting. It has all of the ingredients that make a good story and in turn a good motion picture. But to misrepresent to the motion picture viewing public that the upcoming film is a "true story" is not only misleading but it raises a serious question about the credibility of the Disney organization....Hopkins so-called 'true story' may be the first major hoax of the 21st century perpetuated on the US public and motion picture public. For the scriptwriter and Disney to call it "true" is not only inaccurate but misleading. The Disney Studio has been built on public trust. To claim that something is true when it is not breaks that trust. So long as they ignore the truth, it is irresponsible. The company is not performing in a responsible manner."
Professor David Dary, emeritus professor and former head of the Gaylord College of Journalism at the University of Oklahoma.
As these quotes demonstrate, highly respected people were honestly concerned that the Disney studio was involved in deliberately peddling a historical falsehood to a gullible public.
Nevertheless, despite a mountain of evidence demonstrating that Hopkins had invented the "Oceans of Fire" race depicted in the Disney movie, as well as his mythical mustang, Hidalgo, Fusco and his masters at the Disney studio defiantly continued to claim that the Hidalgo movie was authentic. The most notorious example of the studio's dismissal of the truth came about when a Disney employee spoke in an unguarded manner to Peter Harrigan, an English reporter stationed in Arabia.
Nina Heyn was Disney's Executive Director of International Publicity at the time of the movie’s release. She sent the public a chilling message when she told Harrigan, "No one here really cares about the historical aspects. Once a picture has been shot, people move on to others. We're like a factory. It’s like making dolls. Once the latest doll is out we go onto the next one. If it transpires that the historical aspects are in question I don't think people would care that much. Hidalgo is a family film. It has little to do with reality."
Despite a mountain of evidence proving Hopkins deceived the public, the Walt Disney studio continues to wrongfully claim that the movie Hidalgo is "based on a true story."
Lacking any factual evidence to validate Hopkins “Ocean of Fire” race, the Disney studio released the map on the right, which purports to show the route used during the fantasy endurance event.
This wasn’t the first time someone with a financial interest had invented a map in an attempt to strengthen Hopkins’ claims.
The map on the left was drawn by Anthony Amaral and appeared in his now-discredited article.
During the ensuing international scandal, and in the decade since the movie’s release, one man has remained above the fray.
At the time of the Hopkins controversy many people around the world held a high opinion of Walt Disney, the founder of the studio. It was commonly believed that if Disney had still been alive he would not have approved of deceiving the public in this manner.
A leading American academic did not agree with this benign view of Disney.
Professor Henry Giroux is the Waterbury Chair Professor of Education at Penn State University and author of dozens of books including "The Mouse that Roared - Disney and the End of Innocence."
Professor Giroux issued this prophetic warning.
"This scandalous behaviour on the part of the Disney Corporation does not surprise me at all. Truth telling is not one of their signature characteristics."
In the intervening years since, the Hopkins Hoax and the Hidalgo movie have come to be viewed as an act of deliberate cinematic deception. All the while it has continued to be commonly assumed that Walt Disney himself would not have condoned this blatant disregard of the truth.
Disney the man has escaped any criticism – until now.
Evidence has been discovered which demonstrates that it was Walt Disney who helped set in motion a corporate policy designed to deliberately mislead the public.
Another True Story – Another Deception
There is now reason to believe that the studio's contempt for academic truth was in fact set in motion by Walt Disney and that Hidalgo was only the latest example of a company policy originated by Disney himself.
The Long Riders’ Guild has discovered that Disney himself was involved in passing off another piece of fiction as a “true story.”
What makes this example electrifying is that it is Walt Disney himself who is looking directly at the camera - and lying to the public.
The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh
The clue was found in a remote English marsh amidst the forgotten work of an obscure British author.
Arthur Russell Thorndike (1885 – 1972) was a British novelist best known as the creator of the dashing smuggler Doctor Syn, alias the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.
Like Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel, Thorndike’s novels recounted the adventures of a fictional hero who, while dressed as the respectable Dr.Syn, championed the rights of the downtrodden during the day. After the sun set Dr. Syn changed his clothes and became the Scarecrow, a ruthless smuggler who carried on a profitable business smuggling brandy and tobacco in from France.
Though Thorndike’s books were exciting, no one, including the author, ever claimed that his fictional Scarecrow of Romney Marsh had ever actually lived.
Until Walt Disney, that is.
|Dr. Syn, the smuggler known as the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, was a fictional character created by British author Arthur Thorndike. In 1964 Walt Disney falsely claimed that Thorndike’s literary creation “was a real person… who lived 200 years ago.”|
Why the Scarecrow?
Thorndike wrote four novels about the Scarecrow. It was the fourth in the series which attracted the attention of the Walt Disney studio.
Why would the man responsible for releasing Bambi, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and other benign childhood heroes want to make a movie about a cross-dressing smuggler who had a sinister past involving kidnap, murder and torture?
Though Great Britain had won the military battle for the Second World War, the conflict had left the country in a perilous financial position. In an effort to keep badly needed funds within the country, the government froze the assets of foreign countries and companies.
In an effort sidestep the economic blockade Walt Disney’s brother, Roy, was dispatched to England to strike a deal. The Disney Studio would make a series of live action films in Great Britain if Whitehall would permit the frozen funds to be used to cover the expenses.
When London agreed the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was reborn.
Based Upon On A True Story (Sort Of)
Walt Disney’s snow-white image is no longer without its critics. For example some people have wondered about his connections to Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl. Because her documentaries had glorified the Third Reich, when Riefenstahl attempted to obtain work in Hollywood, no studio head would screen her movies except Walt Disney.
While Disney’s politics continue to be debated, he was no fool when it came to selling the public an appealing story. That’s why he ordered the Doctor Syn stories scrubbed clean. Christopher Syn’s activities as a murderous pirate were exorcised. His torturing of prisoners was deleted. Instead Disney cast Patrick McGoohan as a freedom-loving parson who donned a scarecrow’s mask and galloped about in the dark for a bit fun with the local lads.
Of course Walt wasn’t content to whitewash the Scarecrow. He changed Thorndike’s characters about too, deleting some, inventing others, and then, not forgetting his audience back home, he added in a dash of America’s fight for independence.
The result, as one critic said, “was one hell of an adventure.”
And it to make it even better, Walt Disney told his audience that the story was true.
Trust me, I’m Walt Disney
When Season 10, Episode 17 of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color was broadcast on February 9, 1964 American audiences got their first glimpse of The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, as per Walt Disney wanted them to see and believe it.
Children across America listened that night as “Uncle Walt” told this version of events during his customary introduction.
"Books of adventure, suspense and mystery always have a special appeal for me when they are about real people or based on the life of a real person, like these books by the English author Russell Thorndike. The hero of all the Thorndike stories is one of the strangest characters who ever lived, a real life ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’ He lived in England nearly 200 years ago. By day he was a respected member of his community and by night he was the greatest smuggler in the whole country. But, like Robin Hood, though he was a thorn in the side of law and order, he was a hero to the ordinary folks of his time, because whatever he made as a smuggler, he gave away to the poor and the needy. This is where he operated; all along this coast here, better known to us today as the White Cliffs of Dover. He was smuggling in cargoes from France, Belgium and Holland. And in this part of England even today they still talk about the Scarecrow's smuggling gang. Now his nickname came from the disguise he wore. And only two of the men he led knew who he really was. They wore disguises too. Something like this. This one is called Hellspike and this one Curlew. Now there have been verses and songs written about this Scarecrow leader, like the one we have for you now, which sets the stage for our first story."
This opening episode of the Scarecrow trilogy, including Disney's quote, has been posted on Youtube.
Hollywood Learns a Lesson
Dr. Donald Worcester was an Ida and Cecil Green Distinguished Emeritus at Texas Christian University, the author of many books, including "The Spanish Mustang," and a victim of the Hopkins Hoax. When Dr. Winchester realized that he had been duped by Hopkins’ mythical account about a non-existent horse race across Arabia, he issued this stern warning.
"If the Walt Disney studio does not admit that the movie ‘Hidalgo’ is fiction, then years from now people will be misled into believing that it is a true story."
The Disney Corporation ignored Dr. Worcester, and everyone else who urged them to admit that Hidalgo was in fact a fantasy.
But in the intervening years film makers took notice of the public mauling the Disney Studio endured when it was caught misleading the public about Hopkins and Hidalgo.
Case in point was Australian film maker Peter Weir’s movie The Way Back. Having learned that the book which served as the basis for his script was a historical fraud, Weir made no attempt to deceive the public.
What prompted film-maker Weir to adhere to this allegiance to the truth? Could it have been the quiet about-face enacted by the Walt Disney studio?
In 2006 the Disney studio released a film entitled Eight Below, which was supposedly about an American who rescued sled dogs stranded in Antarctica. In reality the events in the film were connected to a gruesome 1958 Japanese expedition to the frozen continent wherein the majority of the abandoned dogs froze or starved to death.
But in a break with its corporate past, the Disney studio announced that Eight Below had been “Inspired by a true story.”
Is that a step in the right direction?
What we can conclude is that the Disney Studio’s decision to portray Hidalgo as a “true story,” no matter what it cost them in terms of public trust and corporate embarrassment, was not a recent decision. It was connected to Walt Disney’s decision to peddle the fairytale about the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh as being factual.
Walt Disney Studios – Home of “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” a tale about a wily Irishman and his battle of wits with leprechauns, and Hidalgo, a tale about pony baloney.
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