Hugh Hudson Dead: Chariots of Fire Director Was 86

Hugh Hudson, who directed the classic Oscar winning film “Chariots of Fire,” died Friday in London. He was 86. 

The Guardian said he had died after a short illness. His family released a statement saying, “Hugh Hudson, 86, beloved husband and father, died at Charing Cross hospital on 10 February after a short illness. He is survived by his wife Maryam, his son Thomas and his first wife Sue.”

As a director Hudson could be counted upon to deliver lush, beautifully designed, well-orchestrated scenes.

“Chariots of Fire” was the story of the rivalry between two British runners, one Jewish, the other a devout Christian, culminating in the 1924 Olympics. Hudson was Oscar nominated for best director in 1982, and the movie won four Academy Awards, including best picture and best score for the electronic compositions of Vangelis that somehow worked splendidly in the period film.

Hudson had brought his friend Vangelis onto the project, and it was Hudson who had the idea for an anachronistic, electronic score.

At the Cannes Film Festival the year before, the film had competed for the Palme d’Or.

“Chariots of Fire” carried a resonance in Britain that was not picked up by American audiences. As the BFI Screenonline website explains: “The film became one of the decade’s most controversial British films, regarded by its left-leaning makers (producer David Puttnam, Hudson and the writer Colin Welland) as a radical indictment of Establishment snobbery and privilege, but appropriated by others as a conservative paean to Thatcherite values of individualism and enterprise.”

“Chariots of Fire” had been Hudson’s first feature film, though he had also made the feature-length documentary “Fangio: Una vita a 300 all’ora,” profiling the Formula One champion Juan Manuel Fangio. (He had been working for more than a decade in documentaries and commercials.)

Hudson had done a great deal with the £3 million budget of “Chariots of Fire” given the costs usually associated with a period film — and the movie had generated box office of $58 million in the U.S. alone.

With profitability of that order and four Oscars, it did not seem odd to hand a film of vastly greater scale, “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,” which would have to shoot partly in Africa, to the now-hot director Hudson. Long in the works, the high-budget film (an estimated $33 million) was originally scripted by “Chinatown” writer Robert Towne and had been envisioned by Warner Bros. as a directing vehicle for Towne.

Hudson departed from Towne’s vision. Critics applauded the verdant, poignant and adventurous first half of the film, shot in Cameroon, but were mixed about the second half in which Christopher Lambert’s Greystoke (Tarzan) further explores his sense of himself back in England among the country’s aristocracy.

The New York Times said Hudson and “his associates have made something much more than a good fantasy. They have discovered reserves of feeling and beauty in the old Edgar Rice Burroughs tales that remained unexplored by Burroughs himself and by the dozens of journeymen who have been cranking out Tarzan movies and television serials over the years.”

The U.S. box office gross was $45 million.

Hudson’s next picture was another adult-oriented dramatic spectacle, but the Revolutionary War-themed “Revolution” (1985), starring Al Pacino, was almost thoroughly misbegotten. 

What’s more, while the visuals were often beautiful, they struck a distinctly discordant and chaotic note with American audiences who knew just by looking that the film, which had been shot in the U.K., had not achieved an authentic sense of the settings of the American Revolution.

The film which had been budgeted at $28 million, grossed less than $400,000 in the U.S.

After the disaster that was “Revolution,” Hudson retreated from feature filmmaking for a while, making a documentary short in 1987, “Labour Party Election Broadcast (21 May 1987).” When he returned two years later, it was on a much smaller scale, with the film “Lost Angels.” Adam Horovitz (of the Beastie Boys) starred as a angry, alienated teen in an affluent area of Los Angeles (as the title suggests) who gets in trouble with the police and gets sent to a privately run juvenile detention center where his doctor, played by Donald Sutherland (who had had a prominent role in “Revolution”), scorns the indifference of his bosses to the troubled kids.

The film, said Roger Ebert, “avoids a lot of obvious cliches, treats its characters with dignity and develops them as specific individuals,” which makes for an “intelligent, well-crafted picture.” 

“Lost Angels” also competed at Cannes

Next, for the anthology film “Lumiere & Company,” Hudson was among 40 directors — the others included James Ivory, David Lynch, Patrice Leconte and Spike Lee — asked to shoot a brief film using the technology employed by movie pioneers the Lumiere brothers a century earlier. In Hudson’s contribution, which is less than a minute long, the camera pans down to a group of schoolgirls and then to a park bench, upon which the girls then jump — comfortable with the minute-long format if not the antiquated camera, Hudson turned out an elegant, effortless, breezy pleasure.

Almost 20 years after “Chariots of Fire,” Hudson reteamed with “Chariots” producer David Puttnam to make another period film centered on the English aristocracy of the 1920s. “My Life So Far” starred Colin Firth, Rosemary Harris, Irene Jacob and Malcolm McDowell. Firth played an oddball inventor who falls in love with the fiancée (Jacob) of his more practical businessman uncle (McDowell), all at a strange castle in the Scottish Highlands where Harris, playing Firth’s mother, sternly presides.

The film was generally well liked by critics, but it was little seen by the public and made far less than a million dollars in its domestic run.

Hudson’s final feature film was 2000’s “I Dreamed of Africa,” starring Kim Basinger, Vincent Perez, Eva Marie Saint and Daniel Craig.

Variety said, “Visually gratifying but dramatically weak, the film falls short of its aspiration to be a sweeping romantic epic a la ‘Out of Africa,’ to which it bears some thematic resemblance.”

The movie had a budget of about $34 million but grossed only about $6.5 million in the U.S.

In 2006 Hudson directed a music video for Sarah Brightman, then in 2011 he directed “Rupture: A Matter of Life OR Death,” a feature-length documentary concerning his wife, actress Maryam d’Abo, and her experiences after suffering a subarachnoid hemorrhage in 2007. The latter aired on BBC4 in 2012.

Hudson was also an award-winning director of commercials before, during and after his feature helming career, working at times with Ridley Scott’s RSA company, though he did much of his significant commercials work at his own Hudson Films. His most famous spot, which was for British Airways, depicted large groups of people forming parts of the face and finally the entire face. The very expensive so-called face commercial, which first aired in 1989, was seen around the world.

In 2007 he returned to the high-profile world of British advertising with an ad for Silverjet that cleverly parodied the face commercial.

Born in London and raised there well as in Shropshire, England, and Scotland, Hudson attended Eton. After graduation he did his national service in the Royal Armoured Corps. After discharge in 1960 he edited documentaries and then, with partners Robert Brownjohn and David Cammell, he formed a company to produce documentaries, including “A for Apple,” and “The Tortoise and the Hare,” both award winners.

Hudson was chairman of the jury for International Competition at the 1995 Tokyo International Film Festival.


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