As the Raleigh/Cary TCM Backlot Chapter prepares to see the 60th Anniversary TCM Big Screen Classics presentation of Ben-Hur, I looked for some tidbits related to how the epic film came together. The visual magnificence and thundering action of this historic drama made it a record-setting winner of eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director Oscar for William Wyler in 1960.
Creating a Spectacle: The chariot scene alone cost about four million dollars, approximately a quarter of the entire movie’s budget, and took ten weeks to shoot. It required 15,000 extras on a set constructed on 18 acres of Backlot at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. The chariot arena was reportedly built by more than 1,000 workers beginning in January 1958. It was 2,000 feet long by 65 feet wide and covered 18 acres, the largest single set in motion picture history to that time.
According to Andrew Marton, who directed the chariot race, the track was constructed of steamrolled ground rock debris covered with 10 inches of ground lava and finished with eight inches of crushed yellow rock to make the surface hard enough to hold
the weight of the chariots and horses, while still having enough give due to the top layer of sand not to make the horses lame. 40,000 tons of white sand were imported from Mexico for the track.
Although only about 36 horses would ever be seen on screen during the race, 82 animals were brought in from Yugoslavia to support the shoot. Eighteen chariots were built, with half used for practice.
The heat of Rome proved to be a serious drawback for the action scenes. Horses could only make eight runs a day at most. Because of this, most of the shots in the race were done on the first take.
Shooting an Epic: William Wyler selected all the camera angles for the chariot race, but left the details of its actual shooting in the hands of his second-unit directors Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt. When he saw Marton and Canutt’s work, Wyler remarked that it was “one of the greatest cinematic achievements” he’d ever seen.
Joe Canutt (Yak’s son) doubled for Charlton Heston. During one of the crashes, in which Judah Ben-Hur’s horses jump over a wrecked chariot, the younger Canutt was thrown from his chariot onto its tongue. He managed to climb back into his chariot and bring it under control. The sequence looked so good that it was included in the film, with a close-up of Heston climbing back into the chariot. Canutt got a slight cut on his chin, but it was the only injury in the incredibly dangerous sequence. Stuntman Nosher Powell, who worked on the film, stated in his biography that Yak went pale as a ghost when the chariot crashed as he and everyone on set believed that Joe had died during the shooting of the scene.
Making History: After the film wrapped, the studio ordered the dismantling of all the sets at a cost of $150,000, partially to sell off whatever could be salvaged and partly to prevent producers of low-budget Italian “epics” from using the same materials. The set of this historical film was returned to history.