Hugh Hudson, director of 'Chariots of Fire,' dies at 86

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Hugh Hudson, director of 'Chariots of Fire,' dies at 86
His first film — about two runners, one Christian, one Jewish, who compete at the 1924 Summer Olympics — won four Oscars, including for best picture.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Hugh Hudson, a director whose first feature film, “Chariots of Fire,” won four Oscars in 1982, including for best picture, died Friday in London. He was 86.

His family announced the death to the British news media but did not cite a cause.

“Chariots of Fire,” based on the true story of two British sprinters who competed at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, was nominated for seven Oscars and won four, including for composer Vangelis’ musical score and for the screenplay by Colin Welland, as well as for costume design. Hudson was nominated for best director but lost to Warren Beatty, the director of “Reds.”

“Hugh Hudson was the fulcrum around which ‘Chariots of Fire’ was built,” David Puttnam, the film’s producer, wrote on Twitter after Hudson’s death.

Hudson had an affinity for the leading characters of his film: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian who resisted pressure to run in the 100-meter race at the Olympics because the heats took place on Sunday, the Sabbath; and Harold Abrahams, the son of a Lithuanian Jew who vowed to use running to fight antisemitism. Each man won a gold medal — Liddell for the 400-meter race, which was held on a weekday, and Abrahams for the 100-meter sprint.

“I think David Puttnam chose me because he sensed that I’d relate to the themes of class and racial prejudice,” Hudson told The Guardian in 2012. “I’d been sent to Eton” — a prestigious all-boys boarding school — “because my family had gone there for generations, but I hated all the prejudice.”

To play Liddell and Abrahams, Puttnam refused to cast stars; instead, he chose Ian Charleson and Ben Cross, who were both best known for their television work.

“If I put stars in it, the film would never have been successful,” he told The Jewish Chronicle newspaper in 2011. “With unknown actors, you look at them afresh.”

The most famous sequence of the movie is seen during the opening credits: about two dozen young men, clad in white shirts and shorts, running on a beach in slow motion, their faces creased with pain and exhilaration.

During the shoot, on the West Sands Beach in St. Andrews, Scotland, Hudson blasted Vangelis’ “L’Enfant” over loudspeakers. He wanted it to be the film’s theme, but Vangelis promised to compose something original, according to the online publication Art of the Title.

The result was an instrumental blend of acoustic piano and synthesizer that provided a lush, pulsating accompaniment to the dramatic scene of young men in training. The song spent 28 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, peaking at No. 1.

Hugh Donaldson-Hudson was born Aug. 25, 1936, in London to Michael Donaldson-Hudson, an insurance broker, and Jacynth (Ellerton) Donaldson-Hudson. His parents divorced when he was young. He attended a boarding school before entering Eton, where he dropped “Donaldson” from his surname.

He served in the British Army’s Royal Dragoon Guards and worked in advertising in the late 1950s before he started making documentaries and television commercials. Some of those commercials were for Ridley Scott Associates; Alan Parker, who also worked for Scott, hired Hudson as a second-unit director on “Midnight Express,” his 1978 film about an American student imprisoned for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey. Puttnam was one of that film’s producers.

Hudson’s best-known commercials included one in which Joan Collins splatters herself with a glass of Cinzano white wine, to the delight of another actor, Leonard Rossiter, seated beside her on an airplane; and another showing robots building Fiat Stradas in a factory in Turin, Italy, to the music of Figaro’s entrance aria from “The Barber of Seville.”

Hudson followed “Chariots of Fire,” with “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1984), which received three Oscar nominations, including one for Ralph Richardson for best supporting actor. Writing in The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it an “unusually intelligent and serious entertainment for the mass market.”

But his next film, “Revolution” (1985), starring Al Pacino as a fur trapper caught up in the American Revolution, was considered a major flop. His other films, none of which did well at the box office, included “My Life So Far” (1999), about a family’s life on an estate in Scotland after World War I; “I Dreamed of Africa” (2000), the story of a divorced Italian socialite who moves to Kenya; and “Finding Altamira” (2016), about the discovery of Paleolithic cave paintings in northern Spain in 1879. In 2011 he made a documentary for BBC Four, “Rupture: A Matter of Life or Death,” about his wife, actress Maryam d’Abo, who had recovered from a near-fatal brain aneurysm.

D’Abo survives him, as does a son, Thomas, from his marriage to Susan Michie, which ended in divorce.

In 2012, “Chariots of Fire” was adapted by writer Mike Bartlett as a stage play in London, first at the Hampstead Theater and then at the Gielgud Theater on the West End.

The stage version was Hudson’s idea, to coincide with London’s hosting of the Summer Olympics that year. “Issues of faith, of refusal to compromise, standing up for one’s beliefs, achieving something for the sake of it, with passion, and not just for fame or financial gain,” he told The London Evening Standard at the time, “are even more vital today.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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