“I haven’t seen it,” he says. “Is it special?”
And thus launched a lengthy discussion about one of the most thrilling action scenes in cinematic history. The sequence took more than three months to complete, using 15,000 extras on the largest film set ever built — some 18 acres. Remember, this was before the days where computers provided backdrops and filled in all the extra people.
Eighteen chariots were built, and star Charlton Heston spent four weeks learning how to drive one. To make the scene more realistic, three life-like dummies were placed at key points in the race to give the appearance of men being run over by chariots. Most notable is the stand-in dummy for Stephen Boyd’s Messala that gets tangled up under the horses, resulting in one of the most grisly fatal injuries in motion picture history up to that point.
Though an urban legend claims that a stuntman died during filming, stunt director Yakima Canutt said that no serious injuries or deaths occurred during filming — to either humans or horses. That doesn’t mean there weren’t scary moments. At one point, Judah’s chariot jumps another chariot which had crashed in its path. The driver is nearly thrown from his mount and only just manages to hang on and climb back in to continue the race.
In reality, while the jump was planned, the character being flipped into the air was not planned. Stuntman Joe Canutt, son of the stunt director, was lucky to escape with only a minor chin injury. Let’s call it movie magic, because when director William Wyler intercut the long shot of Canutt’s leap with a close-up of Heston clambering back into his chariot, the result was one of the most memorable moments in movie history.
Haven’t seen Ben-Hur or the chariot race? Now’s your chance. Warner Video is releasing the [amazon_link id=”B0054I14PI” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Ben-Hur 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition[/amazon_link] on Sept. 27, 2011. It’s available as a DVD or Blu-ray set; they sent me the DVD version, and this thing is magnificent. Here’s a rundown of features:
DISCS 1 AND 2:
- The Movie – The 1959 winner of 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Charlton Heston) and Director (William Wyler), restored and remastered for maximum picture and audio clarity.
- Commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher with Charlton Heston
- Music-Only Track showcasing Miklos Rozsa’s award-winning score
- Feature-length documentary – Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey. Retrospective on the Ben-Hur star written and directed by his son Fraser C. Heston, featuring never-before-seen images and footage from the Heston family archives.
- The 1925 Silent Version – Thames Television restoration with stereophonic orchestral score by Carl Davis
DISC 5: Vintage Special Features
- Documentaries – Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema and Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic
- Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures – Audiovisual recreation via stills, storyboards, sketches, music and dialogue
- Screen Tests
- Highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards Telecast
- Newsreels and Trailers
- Charlton Heston: The Ben-Hur Diaries – Reproduction of Charlton Heston’s personal diary from January 1958 to April 1960, chronicling his time before production started through the Academy Awards.
- Exclusive book with rare photos, production art, and reproductions from the original theatrical pressbook.