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Hugh Hudson, Director of ‘Chariots of Fire,’ Dies at 86



Hugh Hudson, who came from the worlds of documentaries and advertising to make his feature directing debut on the stirring Oscar best picture winner. Chariots of Fire, one of the most admired British films ever made, has died. He was 86.

Hudson died Friday at Charing Cross hospital in London after a short illness, his family said The Guardian newspaper.

Hudson helmed just seven features during his career. After earning an Oscar nomination for his 1981 masterpiece, he followed with the highly regarded Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). Starring Christopher Lambert, it was the first Tarzan feature to receive an Oscar nom (it landed three).

Up next for Hudson, however, was Revolution (1985), which starred Al Pacino as a fur trapper thrust into the American Revolutionary War. Made for a reported $28 million, it was a major bust, grossing just $350,000 in the US Critics hammered Pacino, who left acting for about four years, and Hudson’s reputation was never the same.

The London native had gained invaluable experience working as second-unit director for director Alan Parker and producer David Puttnam on Midnight Express (1978) when Puttnam tapped him for Chariots of Fire.

The film, of course, centers on two British sprinters competing at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris: Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross), who battled antisemitism, and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a devout Christian from Scotland.

Puttnam stumbled upon the story and “read that there was this chap who wouldn’t run on a Sunday, and he was quite intrigued by that,” Hudson recalled in a 2011 interview. “He didn’t know about Abrahams then, but as he developed the project, he discovered that he was the fastest man in the world at the time.”

Hudson did not want any prominent actors in the leading roles. “One of my main strategies was to have a main character you have never met before onscreen,” he said. “If I put stars in it, the film would never have been successful. With unknown actors, you look at them afresh. It’s a very powerful element.”

With its Iconic running scene on the beach and accompanying electronic theme by the Greek musician Vangelis, Chariots of Fire collected more than $60 million off a $5.5 million budget, the highest-grossing British film that year.

Although Hudson lost out to Warren Beatty of Reds on Oscar night, the drama netted four Oscars and three BAFTAs, including the one for best film. In 1999, the British Film Institute placed Chariots of Fire in the no. 19 spot on its list of the greatest British movies in history.

It “was used by Thatcherites to boost morale around the time of the Falklands conflict,” Hudson told The Guardian in 2012. “But people also queued around the block to see it in Buenos Aires. They related to what it was really saying: stand up for yourself in the face of the establishment hypocrisy.”

CHARIOTS OF FIRE, lr: Hugh Hudson, Ben Cross on set, 1981

Hugh Hudson (left) and actor Ben Cross on the set of 1981’s Chariots of Fire

20th Century Fox Film Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection

Born into wealth on Aug. 25, 1936, Hudson attended boarding school and Eton College — his family had gone there for generations — then did his military service with the Dragoon Guards.

He began his career in casting at a London advertising agency and as a documentary editor in Paris, then returned to his hometown in 1963 to launch a documentary film company with David Cammell.

They added American graphic designer Robert Brownjohn to form Cammell Hudson Brownjohn Associates, which branched out into advertising with memorable commercials for Benson & Hedges, Midland Bank, etc. and created the title sequence for Goldfinger (1964).

“We were literally there for the moment, the explosion of the ’60s, on the King’s Road, right in the center of things, and we were the first really successful version of what now I suppose you’d call a ’boutique’ house. ,” Hudson noted in a 2016 interview.

Meanwhile, Hudson directed the acclaimed short film A … Is for Apple (1963) and a silent promotional film for the Pirelli tire company, The Tortoise and the Hare (1966), that got him offers from Hollywood. “They sent me scripts, but there was nothing I really wanted to do,” he said.

He moved to Ridley Scott Associates in the early 1970s and spent the next five years working on commercials, then opened his own company, Hudson Film. He was sharing office space with Parker, who also had worked for Scott, and when the filmmaker needed help on Midnight Expresshe hired Hudson to shoot background footage in Turkey.

Among the many wise decisions he made on Chariots of Fire, Hudson chose his friend Vangelis to create the music. “I knew we needed a piece that was anachronistic to the period to give it a feel of modernity,” Hudson said.

“It was a risky idea, but we went with it rather than have a period symphonic score. It’s become iconic film music — perhaps in the top 10 famous soundtracks of all time — which is good because the music is about 30 percent of a film.”

Hudson coaxed an Oscar-nominated performance out of Ralph Richardson Greystokeone of the legendary actor’s final films.

He persuaded Pacino to star in it Revolutionbut the film was rushed into theaters without its intended narration and with its last 10 minutes removed, he said in 2009. It was also “shot in such a way that it was not fashionable to shoot films in that way, handheld, rough, like you’re a television reporter watching this,” he added. (A director’s cut with narration by Pacino was released in 2008.)

In 1989, Hudson returned with Lost Angels, an independent feature that starred Donald Sutherland and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz and played in competition in Cannes. Also that year, he directed the commercial for British Airways known as “Face”; filmed in Utah with a voiceover from Tom Conti, it cost a record 1 million pounds.

He reteamed with Puttnam on the coming-of-age period piece My Life So Far (1997), then followed by directing I Dreamed of Africa (2000), with Kim Basinger as wildlife expert Kuki Gellmann, and Finding Altamira (2016), starring Antonio Banderas.

Survivors include his son, Thomas, and second wife, British actress Maryam d’Abo, who played the cellist Kara Milovy in the 1987 Bond film. The Living Daylights. Four years after they married in 2003, she suffered a brain aneurysm, and that inspired him to direct and produce the documentary. Rupture: A Matter of Life or Death (2011).

When London hosted the 2012 Summer Olympics, Hudson co-produced a stage version of Chariots of Fire that played at the Hampstead Theatre.

The movie, he said, “is a personal best that’s very hard to beat. It’s a real cross. It’s a golden cross. But I’m very happy for it. I can’t deny it. I am very lucky to have had that.”

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