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Claim: A stuntman died during filming of the chariot race sequence in the 1959 version of the film Ben-Hur, and his death was left in the final cut.
Origins: It is frequently claimed that a stuntman was killed during the filming of the chariot scene in the 1959 epic Ben-Hur (from MGM, directed by William Wyler). Versions of the rumor include Wyler's leaving the fatal accident in the final cut (against the wishes of the stuntman's widow), yet no published discussions of the film mention the accident, and Charlton Heston's 1995 autobiography In the Arena specifically states that no one was seriously injured during the filming of the scene.
The Internet Movie Database labels as false the rumor that the stunt double for Stephen Boyd (the villain Mesalla) was killed during the chariot race. This rumor has been attached to practically every human injury faked by stuntmen for the race scenes. (See the end of this article for a listing and analysis of the individual stunts.) In John Baxter's Stunt: The Story of the Great Movie Stunt Men (1974), much is made of the care that went into the filming of this climactic race. The scene was managed by veteran stuntman Yakima Canutt, who included his two sons in the stunt team. Joe Canutt, doubling for Heston, received the only injury when he was flipped out of chariot, catching himself on the center hitching rail before pulling himself back in place. His only injury was a gash on his chin requiring four stitches. The scene was used in the final print.
But there was an earlier, silent version of Ben Hur, also produced by MGM and released in 1926 (this date varies with sources). Kevin Brownlow gives a thorough discussion of the trials and tribulations involved in the seemingly jinxed 1925 production in The Parade's Gone
The set in Rome proved to be unsuitable due to problems with shadows and the racetrack surface.
It was decided to give up the Rome location. Another set was built in Culver City and filled with both extras and the Hollywood elite on a festive Saturday in
Another impressive and controversial scene in the 1926 version is the sea battle. Filmed at Livorno, Italy, it used hundreds of local extras, many of whom apparently lied about being able to swim. Friction was evident between the fascist and anti-fascist camps of the Italian cast. According to Brownlow, director Fred Niblo found a pile of sharpened swords on the deck of the pirate flagship
During filming, the staged fire on one of the triremes got out of control, sending armor-clad extras overboard. Whether any died is debatable. Bosely Crowther (The Lion's Share, 1957) claims that no one died, although three men dressed as Roman soldiers showed up after being missing for three days. Others maintained that some deaths did occur but were covered-up by the studio. Brownlow again quotes Bushman as saying to Niblo, "My God, Fred, they're drowning, I tell you!" as they watched the catastrophe. Niblo supposedly answered, "I can't help it, those ships cost me $40,000 apiece." Baxter accuses Crowther of falsifying the bloodier facts of
The problems associated with the 1926 version and rumors of cover-ups prompted similar rumors in the press regarding the later film. Andrew Marton, director of the chariot scene in the 1959 version, exploded at a press conference, telling reporters that
The early days of the film industry was particularly hard on stunt people. Baxter lists
The following is a chronological listing of the stunts in the chariot race of the 1959
Judy "will pay money to stare at lights on a silver screen" Johnson
Last updated: 11 August 2007
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