Over the Years, if you like movie stunts, you’ll hear about the rumor about the stuntman who died during the shooting of the chariot scene in this movie. Well, we’re going to lay that rumor to rest right, now, it’s not from this movie. There was a stuntman that died during the chariot scene during the filming of the original 1925 version. People will argue and swear that it’s the real man you see in full CinemaScope getting trampled under the chariot…Nope. Don’t believe it. There was a stunt “mishap” on this film, but no one died and it should really be called an “unplanned event”, ’cause that’s what occurs sometimes when a stunt doesn’t quite go as planned.
The Best Movie Stunt for 1959 goes to Joe Canutt and this “unplanned event”. This one is remarkable as well due to the fact that Yakima Canutt, Joe’s father and Stunt Coordinator on this picture, staged and shot this sequence along with Andrew Marton. Joe does the stunt work in this legendary chariot race scene. Father and son appear on the list exactly 20 years apart.
The original screenwriter, Karl Tunberg, had written just three words (“the chariot race”) to describe the now-famous sequence, and no other writer had enlarged on his description. To fill that gap, the director of the film, William Wyler relied on Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt to come up with the sequence. Marton and Canutt wrote 38 pages of script which outlined every aspect of the race, including action, stunts, and camera shots and angles. According to editor John Dunning, producer Sam Zimbalist was deeply involved in the planning and shooting of the chariot sequence, and the construction of the arena. The chariot race ended up having a 263-to-1 cutting ratio (263 feet of film for every one foot kept), probably the highest for any 65mm sequence ever filmed. After the sequence was shot and edited together, Marton and Canutt showed it to Wyler who remarked that it was “one of the greatest cinematic achievements” he’d ever seen.
Now as for the “unplanned event”, in a very specific shot, Joe Canutt was stunt doubling for Charlton Heston as Ben Hur. The stunt called for Joe Canutt to drive his chariot over the wreckage of two others — actually a short ramp placed in his path and blocked from camera sight by one pile of debris. In concept it was a pretty simple stunt, not particularly designed to stand out in the mayhem but in the movie what really happens when Judah Ben-Hur’s chariot jumps over the wreckage of a chariot in its path, Ben-Hur is almost thrown out of his chariot. He hangs on and climbs back aboard to continue the race. While the jump was planned, Joe’s propulsion up and over the chariot front was not.
Marton wanted to keep the shot, but Zimbalist felt the footage was unusable. Marton conceived the idea of showing that Ben-Hur was able to land on and cling to the front of his chariot, then scramble back into the quadriga while the horses kept going. The long shot of Canutt’s accident was cut together with a close-up of Heston climbing back aboard and it now constitutes one of the race’s most memorable moments in the final film.
Things to look up (go to IMDB):
- Ben Hur
- Joe Canutt
- Yakima Canutt
- William Wyler
- Andrew Marton
- Sam Zimbalist
- John Dunning