Interview: Hugh Hudson

The veteran director looks back at 'Chariots of Fire', the inspirational film about running, religion and racism.


By Simon Round, November 10, 2011
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Ben Cross (left) as Jewish sprinter Harold Abrahams and Nigel Havers as Lord Andrew Lindsay in Chariots of Fire which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

Ben Cross (left) as Jewish sprinter Harold Abrahams and Nigel Havers as Lord Andrew Lindsay in Chariots of Fire which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

If you happened, like me, to be a sports-mad Jewish teenager growing up in the early 1980s, there were very few British-Jewish sporting role models. There was, if I remember correctly, a fairly high-ranking table tennis player and one or two professional footballers slogging away in the lower leagues. So you can imagine how exciting it was to visit the cinema and watch a stirring feature film about a British Jewish athlete who also happened to be the fastest man in the world.

Director Hugh Hudson's stirring film, Chariots of Fire, did far more than boost the self-esteem of a spotty north London kid. It won multiple Oscars and took more than $65 million at the box office - a staggering amount for the time.

The movie, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, will be shown as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival on Sunday. There will a question-and-answer session with Hudson, who remains hugely gratified by the enduring success of the film, which is due for a re-release next year in the run-up to the Olympics. He says: "It has a durability about it which is kind of unusual. It doesn't date. There are very few films that can do that. It's gone on for 30 years and I don't see why it couldn't go on for another 30."

Chariots of Fire tells the story of two British Olympic sprinters, both of whom won gold medals at the 1924 Paris games. The pugnacious Harold Abrahams was the son of a Lithuanian-born financier who overcame antisemitism to win a place at Cambridge and become a champion sprinter. Eric Liddell was a gifted Scottish sprinter who was prepared to put his Christian beliefs before his running ambitions.

Director Hugh Hudson

Director Hugh Hudson

The genesis of the film came when film producer David Puttnam happened to be leafing through a book of Olympic facts and figures. Says Hudson: "Puttnam read that there was this chap who wouldn't run on a Sunday and he was quite intrigued by that. 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 feels that before the film was made, Abrahams had been something of a forgotten hero. "I would say that Abrahams was the equal of Jesse Owens. In fact, I would go as far as to say that there have been three truly great sprinters - Usain Bolt, Jesse Owens and Harold Abrahams. I'd love to see them race against each other."

Owens famously confounded Hitler's claim that the Aryan races would prove themselves pre-eminent at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But Abrahams's quieter battle against prejudice proved equally inspirational - and was one of the reason that Chariots of Fire was so successful in the United States, according to Hudson. "When the black communities in America got to see the film, they really identified with the Abrahams character. Who wouldn't? There's prejudice wherever you go and it's growing - another reason why the film remains so successful.

Those in charge at Cambridge disguised their prejudice as a stand against professionalism but the real reason was that they didn't want a Jew to succeed."

He adds: "When we were making the film we were turned away and not allowed to film there. The film was very successful and they regretted not letting us in, typically and hypocritically."

Of course, discovering an inspirational story is one thing and making a successful feature film is quite another. But Puttnam assembled a high-quality team. Hudson and Puttnam had known each other since the 1960s when Puttnam was an advertising executive and Hudson was making films for the agencies. He recalls: "I worked on the feature film Midnight Express with David - he was one of the producers. He obviously had his eye on me."

The other piece in the jigsaw was writer Colin Welland. "Colin wrote a wonderful script. He writes in a very emotive and flowery way - as you read the prose it takes you over."

Hudson had strong and unconventional ideas about how to cast a film - he did not want any stars in the leading roles. "One of my main strategies was to have a main character you have never met before on screen. 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."

The other factor in producing a successful movie about sports is making actors look convincing as athletes - never an easy challenge. Hudson ensured that his leading men, Ben Cross (Abrahams) and Ian Charleson (Liddell), trained as if they were Olympic sprinters. "We had the advantage of having a very long training period, and they were trained by top professionals. I don't know what times they were capable of but Ben, Ian and Nigel [Havers] were all very fit by the time they performed the scenes. And having spent so long together they got to know each other very well, so they were a real body of brothers."

A huge factor in the film's success was the outstanding soundtrack composed by Vangelis - which is still used slavishly in just about any TV running sequence. Hudson decided he wanted Vangelis, an old friend of his, to produce something modern. "I knew we needed a piece which was anachronistic to the period to give it a feel of modernity. 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 per cent of a film."

Although Hudson has made many films since Chariots of Fire it remains the one piece of work that people always want to talk to him about. But he is far from irritated. In fact, he says he takes it as a huge compliment that he is being interviewed about a 30-year-old movie as if it had just been released. "We thought it was a very small film. It had a budget of just $5.5 million. But it won four Oscars and was nominated for eight, which is a great accolade. It has made the rest of my career much easier. It's much more straightforward to get finance when you have an Oscar. It has kept me going for a long time."

'Chariots of Fire' will be screened at the Tricycle Theatre on Sunday November 13 at 6.15pm, followed by a Q and A session with Hugh Hudson. Details on all festival screenings from www.jewishfilm.org

    Last updated: 10:49am, November 10 2011