Ben Hur…..The Chariot Race: Charlton Heston
As one last thought before Judah (Charlton Heston) leaves, the Shiek reminds him, “There is no law in the arena. Many are killed. I hope to see you again.”
Ben Hur, the 1959 MGM epic classic starring Charlton Heston, was the most expensive film ever made up to it’s time. At $15 million dollars and made on an epic, grande scale, the movie was a huge risk for MGM Studios and ultimately saved MGM from bankruptcy. The biggest scene from the film is the chariot race in the Circus Maximus (a replica of the one in Rome). It is also one of the most famous and thrilling scene sequences ever made in film history. The site of the race, the Circus Maximus in Jeruselam (Judea), was constructed on over 18 acres of backlot space at Cincecitta Studios outside of Rome, Italy. The filming of the sequence took five weeks and used 15 thousand extras.
The chariot race segment was directed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. Charlton Heston’s stunt double was Joe Canutt, Yakima’s son. During one of the crashes, Judah Ben-Hur’s horses jump over a crashed chariot, Joe Canutt was thrown over the front of his chariot onto the tongue. He managed to stop from falling under the chariot and climbed back in and bring the chariot under control. The sequence looked so good that it was left in the movie with a close-up of Charlton Heston climbing into the chariot cut into the shot. Stuntman Nosher Powell, who also worked on the film, said in his biography that Yakima Canutt went pale as a ghost when the chariot crashed and his son Joe was thrown over the front of the chariot. The crash was not planned and everybody, including Yakima, thought Joe had just been killed.
The reports of a stuntman being killed during the filming is false. To give the scene more impact and realism, three lifelike dummies were placed at key points in the race to give the appearance of men being run over by chariots. The “Messala” (Stephen Boyd) that was run over, a Roman soldier in the center of the track who was hit by a chariot, and the driver of a crashed chariot who jumped out of the way, but was run over by another were all articulated and weighted dummies, who were made with moveable arm and leg joints, so when they were hit they would react like a human body would when being hit. Great dummy placement and expert editing made all the scenes look real, especially the one where the “Massala” was run over and got caught up in the horses hooves. In Charlton Heston’s autobiography, In The Arena, Heston specifically states no one was seriously injured during the filming of the scene.
The chariot race was shot without sound. This was all added in post production editing. When film director William Wyler saw the final cut of second director Andrew Marton and lead stuntman Yakima Canutt’s work on the chariot race, he remarked that is was “one of the greatest cinematic achievements” he’d ever seen.
The crew taught Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd how to drive their chariots. Heston and Boyd did almost all of their own chariot race scenes seen in the movie. One time, while during a shoot Charlton Heston snapped the reigns to start the race, but his horses didn’t move. Finally one of the crew yelled “Giddy-up” and the horses jumped forward into a run, throwing Heston out of the back of the chariot.