Hugh Hudson obituary: Chariots of Fire and Greystoke director

Hudson followed a trail-blazing career in advertising with a feature debut that became an Oscar-winning landmark for 1980s British cinema: the Olympics drama Chariots of Fire.

15 February 2023

By David Parkinson

Hugh Hudson

What do you do next after your debut is nominated for seven Academy Awards and wins four, including best picture? This was a dilemma that Hugh Hudson, who has died aged 86, never managed to solve, as his subsequent six features struggled to match the critical or commercial success of Chariots of Fire (1981). Indeed, he would long come to regret Oscar-winning screenwriter Colin Welland’s well-intentioned podium boast, “The British are coming!”

Hugh Donaldson-Hudson was born in London on 25 August 1936. He endured a difficult childhood, however, as a Shropshire scandal involving his High Sheriff grandfather and his father’s first wife had resulted in the latter being disinherited and forced to work as a farm labourer. Although the family ensured he was educated at Eton, Hudson retained a life-long disdain for the privileges and prejudices of patrician society.

Having made 8mm films as a boy, Hudson followed National Service by joining the casting department of a London advertising agency. He learned editing in Paris and returned to form a company with David Cammell and American graphic designer Robert Brownjohn. Their first outing was a promo for Hartmann Fibre egg boxes, which was followed by shorts like A…Is for Apple (1963) and The Tortoise and the Hare (1965), which brought offers from Hollywood. Hudson declined, however, and directed Design for Today (1965) for the Central Office of Information and the Sicilian motoring short, Irresistible (1971). 

Following a stint with Ridley Scott Associates, he launched Hudson Film, sharing office space with Alan Parker, who had him oversee second unit work in Turkey for Midnight Express (1978). Although he had feature ambitions, Hudson continued to make adverts, racking up some 1,500 and winning six Golden Lions at Cannes and two Grands Prix. In addition to classic spots for Benson & Hedges, British Airways, Fiat, Courage and Cinzano, he also updated the GPO classic Night Mail (1936) for British Rail.

These mini-masterpieces shaped Hudson’s visual sensibilities and persuaded producer David Puttnam to entrust him with Chariots of Fire. Exploring the prejudice faced by Jewish sprinter Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Scottish Christian rival Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) prior to the 1924 Olympics, Colin Welland’s screenplay chimed in with Hudson’s anti-establishment notions. Determined to skirt the ‘heritage’ label, he commissioned an anachronistic electronic score from Vangelis (with whom he’d worked on the 1978 infomercial, 12 Squadron Buccaneers) and deployed its theme over the opening slow-motion sequence of athletes running along a windswept beach.

Rooted in Hudson’s advertising aesthetic, this iconic scene reinforced his reputation for impeccable composition and caught the public imagination. However, his denunciation of upper-class bigotry and hypocrisy was conveniently overlooked as the Tory elite claimed the multiple Oscar winner as a paean to individualism, endeavour and patriotism. 

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Hudson lost best director to Warren Beatty for Reds, but had the satisfaction of seeing his deeply personal £3 million project become the most successful import in US screen history, grossing $58 million. Moreover, when London hosted the 2012 Games, Hudson co-produced a stage version of Chariots of Fire at the Hampstead Theatre.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)

By then, however, his career had floundered, with BFI Screenonline comparing him to Orson Welles after his lauded debut was followed by “accusations of him being a profligate perfectionist who had squandered his opportunities”. Keen to continue his offensive against high society, Hudson used the second half of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) to show his jungle hero (Christopher Lambert) struggling to find a niche among the upper echelons. Scenarist Robert Towne was so dismayed by the shift of emphasis, however, that he credited the script to his sheepdog, P.H. Vazak, who was promptly nominated for an Oscar.

The need for Glenn Close to dub Andie MacDowell’s dialogue, rows with Warner Bros over running times, and a falling-out with Puttnam further soured the enterprise. Yet, while it only made $45 million in the US on a reported $33 million budget, it became the first Tarzan movie to receive Oscar recognition. 

Nevertheless, even the critics who had discerned silver linings largely deserted Hudson over Revolution (1985). Starring Al Pacino as a trapper fighting the War of Independence, this $28 million epic was filmed in Norfolk and was so panned by critics Stateside that it only grossed around $350,000. Hudson protested that Goldcrest had rushed the release and later felt vindicated when Observer critic Philip French declared Revolution: Revisited (2009) a masterpiece. 

Revolution (1985)

The backlash over Revolution damaged the prospects of Lost Angels (1989), a delinquency saga with Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, and Hudson was restricted to a minute-long contribution to the anthology, Lumière & Company (1995), before returning to features with My Life So Far (1999), an adaptation of Dennis Forman’s memoir, starring Colin Firth.

Dubbed “Kinnock the Movie”, Hudson’s 1987 Labour Party election broadcast reached a much bigger audience than his final two features, I Dreamed of Africa (2000) and Finding Altamira (2016). However, he was commended for documentaries about motor-racing champion Juan Manuel Fangio and second wife Maryam D’Abo’s recovery from a brain haemorrhage. He also kept making commercials and latterly contributed to the screenplays of The Journey Home (2014) and The Tiger’s Nest (2022).

  • Hugh Hudson, 25 August 1936 to 10 February 2023

David Puttnam on Hugh Hudson

Hugh Hudson was the fulcrum around which Chariots of Fire was built. His passing, coming on the heels of the loss of Vangelis and the film’s screenwriter, Colin Welland, offers a moment to reflect on how incredibly fortunate I was, maybe we all were, to work together at a very particular point in our careers.

Nigel Havers referred to the fact that the film was made, with little likelihood of commercial success, by ‘a happy band of brothers’ who sincerely believed in the underlying issues the film tried to address. Class, religion, commitment, misplaced loyalty, empty triumphalism – the film took aim at a whole slew of prejudices, and audiences drew a variety of conclusions – but not many left the cinema unmoved. Hugh’s contribution was immense, and everyone involved benefited hugely as our subsequent careers developed.

It’s a strange thing, but the opening of Chariots of Fire has an ageing ‘Aubrey Montague’ speaking at a memorial service, uttering these words: “Now only a few of us are left, we who had hope in our hearts and wings on our heels.” With Hugh’s passing, how profoundly those words are echoing today. 

– David Puttnam, 11 February 2023

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