Ben Hur death
Classic Hollywood Myths

Myth: a stuntman’s death in Ben-Hur (1959)

In Classic Hollywood Myths we take a look at all the myths about the Golden Age of Hollywood. What really happened? Are these ‘urban legends’ true or false? Classic Hollywood Central looks into it!

Myth: A stuntman died on the set of Ben-Hur (1959) and it can be seen in the film.

Ben-Hur is an epic historical drama that is considered a classic to this day. Its perhaps Charlton Heston’s most famous film and one of the only Hollywood features enthusiastically approved by the Vatican. At the time, studio MGM was looking for a hit film. Paramounts’ The Ten Commandments had been a huge success, inspiring MGM to look at a biblical storyline as well. They decided to remake Ben-Hur, a 1925 silent film. They poured money into the film and with a budget of $ 15 million, it was the most expensive movie of its time.
The most important scene to film was the chariot race. Planning for the scene took a year. A historically accurate arena was built, horses were imported and trained and actors were taught to ride the chariots. The actual filming of the scene took three months and 7000 extras were hired to cheer on the stand. Despite all of the meticulous preparation, it was still a risky scene with a lot of action and the horses could be unpredictable. After the film was released, rumours swirled that a stuntman had died during shooting and that the scene was left in the film. The stuntman supposedly stood in for actor Stephen Boyd, who played villain Messala. It is said that the stuntman’s widow was actively against the scene of her husband’s death being used, but that the studio ignored her.

True or False?

There are two mix ups here. The first is that someone wás injured on set, but he did not die. The son of stuntman Yakima Canutt was the stuntman for Charlton Heston and he was thrown out of a chariot. That scene is, in fact, in the film. He managed to get back up and got right back to work. He was not killed or seriously injured.
the second mix up is that a stuntman wás killed, but it was on the set of the original Ben-Hur in 1925. Francis X. Bushman, who played Messala in the silent film, said of the incident: “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.” Five horses reportedly died during filming as well. A staged fire on a boat also got out of control, forcing extra’s to jump ship clad in heavy armor. It’s safe to say that production on the first Ben-Hur was troubled, but this was not the case for the 1959 version.

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  1. Steven Speilburg says:

    I was in the original 1959 film as a chariot driver, I was the one who was run over and bent in half, it did hurt a bit and I had to have all of my limbs replaced with top secret bionic parts. I went on to make many films and can confirm no one actually stayed dead unless they are really deaded like Charly Heston who went on to create a chain of gastro pubs in the UK.

  2. John Taylor says:

    Thanks for the clarification. I remember seeing the stuntman fall off the chariot and run over, so I assumed that was the man who died.

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