FOLKLORE-L ArchivesArchiver > FOLKLORE > 1999-06 > 0928970384
Subject: [FOLKLORE-L] Ben-Hur
Date: Wed, 9 Jun 1999 19:19:44 EDT
By Judy Johnson
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 (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 By . . . (1969). The intention
was to shoot the chariot race in a recreation of the Circus Maximus on
location in Rome. The second-unit director in charge of the chariot race was
B. Reeves "Breezy" Eason, known for his genius with action scenes involving
horses. He was also known for being ruthless. Vets were seldom consulted: if
a horse limped, they shot it. Some suggested he was not much more caring with
The set in Rome proved to be unsuitable due to problems with shadows and the
racetrack surface. Francis X. Bushman (Mesalla) relates the following:
"During one take, we went around the curve and the wheel broke on the other
fellow's chariot. The hub hit the ground and the guy shot up in the air about
thirty feet. I turned and saw him up there - it was like a slow-motion film.
He fell on a pile of lumber and died of internal injuries." [Brownlow, 1969]
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 October. To ensure a good race, Eason offered a bonus to the
winning driver. One spectacular unplanned pile-up was left in the final cut.
42 cameras were used that day, and a total of 50,000 feet of film was shot.
The final, choreographed pile-up, in which Mesalla meets his end, was shot
later, at the cost of five horses. No human was seriously injured in the US
filming. Most film histories concentrate on this fact, and neglect the death
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 -- apparently the man casting the extras had separated
the crews along political lines in hopes of getting a real naval engagement.
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 Ben-Hur.
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 20 men and 100 horses had died while
filming the race, adding "That's what you want to hear, isn't it?" This
outburst apparently help feed the gossip. [Baxter, 1974]
The early days of the film industry was particularly hard on stunt people.
Baxter lists 55 deaths, mostly stunt people, as occurring in California film
productions during the years 1925-30. Most of these deaths were hushed up.
Although later years saw fewer deaths, and less secrecy, the legacy of studio
spin-doctors and confusion between the two movies helped create a movie
The following is a chronological listing of the stunts in the chariot race of
the 1959 Ben-Hur. It is recommended that before claiming that a particular
stunt had to have been real, you obtain a video of the film and go through
the stunt in slow motion.
1.Chariot flips over as it rounds a turn, driver spills out. Easily performed
2.After Messala rips the wheels of a chariot, the driver is dragged behind
the horses. He then turns to face the oncoming chariots, leaps out of the way
of one, and then is run over by a second. The camera cuts away from an
obviously live stunt man, to a posed dummy which gets flattened. Many people
point to this as the fatal accident.
3.Ben Hur (Heston) avoids Messala and makes another chariot crash into the
wall, dumping the driver. Another easily performed stunt.
4.Messala forces one chariot into another, both pile up into wall. Horses
fall in typical trip-wire fashion.
5.Roman soldier standing along wall pitches forward as one chariot passes, is
run over by second. This gag has been labeled fatal. When you go through it
in slow motion, note that the body's legs remain straight even after being
trampled. Note particularly that the feet remain perpendicular to the legs.
This is obviously a dummy.
6.Ben-Hur is pinned against wall and must leap the two chariots that crashed
in [4.] above. This is the incident in which Canutt is pitched forward and
receives a minor cut to his chin. Although this was the only stunt that was
very nearly serious, it is rarely suggested that this was the fatal accident.
7.Messala's chariot disintegrates, and he is pitched out, dragged behind, and
finally trampled by the horses of another chariot. Going through this in slow
motion, you can clearly see that the figure pitched out of the chariot,
dragged and trampled is a dummy. A close-up of Stephen Boyd being dragged is
cut into the sequence, but the distance shots are all done with a stiff
figure. This is where many people erroneously feel an accident occurred.
Thanks to Barbara "Four Spoons Up" Mikkelson for the lead on Baxter's book.
Judy "will pay money to stare at lights on a silver screen" Johnson
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