HUGH HUDSON IS a big, ruddy, softspoken Englishman with an enviably thick, wave-tossed head of silver hair. As the director of "Chariots of Fire," a stirring inspirational tribute to the athletic H achievements of 1924 Olympic British track stars Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, Hudson has achieved instant respect and status with his first feature. A sign of the confidence he has inspired in Hollywood: Warner Bros. asked Hudson to take over the direction of Robert Towne's long-delayed Tarzan project, "Greystoke," which has been "in development" for the past six years at a cost of about $6 million to the remarkably patient distributor. Diverting to Washington briefly while helping launch "Chariots" at the New York Film Festival, Hudson planned to fly to West Africa within the week to scout potential locations for "Greystoke."

Hudson's feature debut came relatively late at the age of 40, following a productive and lucrative apprenticeship as a producer and director of industrial documentaries and television commercials in England. His breakthrough was also the fourth impressive recruiting job masterminded by the British producer David Puttnam, who had earlier produced the first features directed by Michael Apted, Ridley Scott and Alan Parker -- "Stardust," "The Duellists" and "Bugsy Malone" respectively. This trio went on to commercial success under Hollywood auspices with "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Alien" and "Midnight Express."

"I had know Puttnam for some time," Hudson explained, "and we were always discussing ideas for movies. I also knew Parker quite well, so both of them thought of me when the tight schedule on 'Midnight Express' made it impossible for Parker to handle the load. I was hired to direct the second-unit, so I went to Malta and got my feet wet in that fashion.

"All along Puttnam and I were working on a project called 'The October Circle' by TK, a political thriller of sorts, set in Czechoslavakia in 1968 and dealing with a generational, father-son conflict that's intensified by political crisis. It's still coming along, needs some more polishing and clarifying before the script is ready to go. As things now stand, I'm obliged to tell Warners by the first of the year whether I think 'Greystoke' is feasible. If so, I'll get started on that in the spring and 'The October Circle' will have to wait a bit longer.

"If humanly possible, Warners wants 'Greystoke' by the summer of '83. They've got a huge investment in the project, and there's no doubt that it could be a classic, providing it can be done believably in the first place. It's also reached the point where the studio's seven-year option with the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate is about to run out, and the Dereks' version of "Tarzan" may have created bad feeling between the estate and Hollywood.

"Bob Towne's idea was light-years away from the sort of travesty I suppose the Dereks thought they were up to. He's very fond of the Burroughs books and fascinated by the basic myth. He wanted to recapture the animism of the original "Tarzan" stories, and to do so we'll need to achieve an extraordinary kind of illusion, particularly with the actors cast and costumed as apes. Kubrick did pretty well by his ape-men at the start of '2001,' but I think 'Greystoke' will have to surpass that by a considerable measure to produce the right emotional effects. If it does work . . . well, it would be a picture to cherish.

"While Puttnam and I continued puttering around with 'The October Circle,' he got the idea for 'Chariots of Fire.' When he was staying in Los Angeles, he picked up a history of the Olympic Games, read about Abrahams and Liddell and saw a movie in their stories. I got involved after he'd hired Colin Welland to write a first draft, and everything has gone quite smoothly. I thought I was right to turn down things like 'Omen III' and 'The Awakening' and all the other scripts that never appealed to me, although they looked more exploitable than something like 'Chariots' on the face of it. I know I've been ready to direct a feature for a long time, but I wasn't desperate to have a feature credit. I had my own production company, had done quite well with commercials and thought I could afford to be patient. 'Chariots' has proved it pays to wait for something you can direct with a clear conscience.

"The big popular test for us, of course, is the American market. There's simply a larger and more enthusiastic public here, and if it likes the film, it will enhance its chances everywhere and make it easier to convince the major distributors that other projects with a distinctively British flavor could have wide appeal in the States.

"Both the investors have made back their money. Curiously, 20th Century-Fox put up half the money but passed on the chance to distribute the film here. I understand it's caused a bit of a stir within the company, since the new owner, Marvin Davis, is a sports enthusiast and loved the picture. It's all something of a mystery.

"The only aspect of the job that worried me to some extent was working with the actors. I wasn't totally without experience on that score, but it was limited. The technical side -- camera, cutting and so forth -- was completely familiar. After 10 years of industrials and commercials, I had total confidence in my ability to get what I wanted visually. So it was very reassuring to be working with a cast whose talents were beyond question. I couldn't do too many things wrong on the dramatic side after casting new actors as good as Ben Cross and Ian Charleson and old pros like John Gielgud and Ian Holm.

"I had never worked in the theater or television. I was keen on movies when I was in school and pestered the family with a lot of amateur shooting. I tried to break in somewhere in the late '50s and early '60s, when we still had something resembling a British movie industry and there was a big surge of enthusiasm about the movies in general, starting, I suppose, with the New Wave. I remember being more impressed with the Italians. Thought Antonioni's 'L'Avventura' was overwhelming, couldn't see it often enough. At any rate, no one in a position of authority seemed interested in the kind of enthusiasm I had to offer, so I ended up in Paris, oddly enough, for several years, working as a film editor.

"I played the usual sports in school and still follow sports. Yours too when I'm over here. But it wasn't the athletic side of "Chariots" that really interested me. I was more attracted by the characters and the sense that they had to overcome certain kinds of opposition built into a rigid social system. I never went on to university, but I did go through the classic public school education, and I thought I could bring a lot to the episodes dealing with Abrahams at Cambridge. It's a terrible educational system. A great education in scholastic terms but just miserable and antiquated socially. It perpetuates elitist snobberies that don't make any sense now that the Empire has dwindled away. I think it was designed to train a corps of diplomats and imperial adventurers who could be counted on to run the world. The value system that's still being upheld no longer serves any useful purpose. I was quite sympathetic when Tony Benn suggested dismantling the English public school system. I thought it was one of his good outrageous suggestions.

"It's an irony outside the scope of the movie we were making, but Abrahams evidently turned into an obnoxious reactionary as he grew older. Dreadful snob, bigger Tory than the established Tories, that whole syndrome. He was a British Olympic official for years, and many athletes confided to us that they found him a perfect pig, always lording it over them, playing the petty tyrant.

"There's no doubt that Liddell was the one made of finer stuff. He'd been a missionary before the Games and went back to the missions in China after them. He died in 1944 in a Japanese POW camp somewhere in Northern China, as I recall. Had a brain hemorrhage. His sister is still alive and has a considerable amount of correspondence from prisoners who survived. It was some kind of international compound, with a lot of diplomatic people and missionaries and commercial types, I think, who got interned when the Japanese overran the place. All of them testify to Liddell's courage and fortitude in the camp. Might be an even better movie in that story."