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6 Ben-Hur Legends Debunked

Tonight sees our Twitter DVD Club tackle the might of Judah Ben-Hur, in the form of William Wyler's 1959 classic adaptation.

Go here to find out how to get involved and watch the film with us at 8pm.

There are many myths, legends and rumours surrounding the epic production, so we thought we'd grab our finest deerstalker and and investigate further...

Legend: In the chariot race, a stuntman was thrown from his mount and killed.

Background: During the famed and much debated chariot race, several of the charioteers are hurled onto the track.

One, who falls under the wheels and hooves of another racer's horse and chariot, is seen to be trampled. The stuntman who played the charioteer was tragically killed.

The footage was then supposedly left in the final version.

True or False: False

Legend Explained: It's clearly a dummy.

Several were used during the filming of the scene and when edited, the effect was so realistic, it caused controversy at the time.

The source of this legend may come from the 1926 version of the film, Ben-Hur: A Story of the Christ , during which several stuntmen may have lost their lives.

The only life-threatening incident in the filming of the chariot race happened in the scene where Ben Hur’s mount is pinned against the wall, approaching an overturned chariot.

According to the plan by stunt co-ordinator Yakima Canutt - whose son Joe doubled for Heston - Ben-Hur’s chariot was to jump the overturned vehicle.

In the event, we see Ben-Hur almost thrown from his mount, only just managing to hang on and climb back in to continue the race.

This wasn’t planned, and Joe was considered fortunate to escape with only a minor injury.

With a shot of Charlton Heston climbing back into his chariot and a touch of clever editing, a classic scene was created.[page-break]

Legend: A Roman guard extra falls under the wheels of a chariot and is killed.

Background: During the race, a chariot brushes past two Roman guards, one of whom manages to keep his balance. The other falls and is trampled.

According to legend, the actor playing the guard was killed, and the filmmakers decided to leave the footage in despite protests from the man’s family.

True or False: False

Legend Explained: Stuntman Nosher Powell claims in his autobiography, "We had a stuntman killed in the third week, and it happened right in front of me.

You saw it, too, because the cameras kept turning and it's in the movie."

Although Powell made this claim, he offered no evidence to back it up and it's probably a case of rumour-mongering to sell books.

There are variations of this myth for every stunt in the race where someone is seemingly injured or killed.

Charlton Heston states in his autobiography ‘In The Arena’ that there were no injuries or deaths to any of the stuntmen or the horses.

In John Baxter’s book ‘Stunt: The Story of the Great Movie Stuntmen’, Baxter goes into great detail about the care that was taken in the filming of this climactic race.

Studying the modern re-master of the film, it's clear that the fallen Roman guard, much like the fallen charioteer, is actually a dummy. [page-break]

Legend: A red Ferrari is visible during the chariot race.

Background: Apparently there is a split second glimpse of a red sports car behind one of the pillars at the stadium. The background to this legend is unknown but it still persists.

True or False: False

Legend Explained: , ever dedicated to the facts, has spent many hours studying the chariot race footage.

We can conclude, with bloodshot eyes and motion sickness, that there is no sign of a sports car of any kind during the scene.

Director William Wyler vehemently denies this claim, along with Heston and others involved in the production.

Several books and websites concur with our verdict, and if it says so in a book then it must be true.

Except that book by the guy earlier who claimed a stuntman was killed...[page-break]

Legend: Tyre tracks are visible during the chariot race.

Background: In several shots during the chariot race, tyre imprints from a car can be seen imprinted in the sand on the race track.

True or False: True

Legend Explained: Well, they are definitely there, but they're not car tracks. The marks were made by the camera dolly, tracking the chariots as they pass.

They weren’t covered over between takes and ended up in the final cut.

Legend: Charlton Heston is wearing a watch during the chariot race

Background: In a monumental continuity error, Heston can be seen wearing a watch in one shot during the race.

The camera angle then switches, and the watch is gone again.

True or False: False

Legend Explained: After closely watching the scene, we see no evidence of a watch anywhere about Heston’s person.

In the DVD commentary, Heston himself explains that he was wearing leather braces right up to the elbow on both arms during the entire race.

Other continuity-error rumours claim that one of the trumpeteers around the edge of the track is also wearing a wristwatch.

It does look like one of the trumpeters has something on his wrist, though it may just be a shadow.


Legend: There is an intentional homosexual subtext between Ben-Hur and childhood friend Messala.

Background: Much of the dialogue and interaction between Ben Hur and Messala seems to have some hidden subtext.

There are rumors of an untold backstory where the two were lovers, and this is the spark that creates the rift between the men.

True or False: True

Legend Explained: Screenwriter Gore Vidal persuaded director William Wyler to allow a thinly veiled homoerotic subtext between Messala and Ben-Hur.

Vidal says his aim was to explain Messala's extreme reaction to Ben-Hur's refusal to name his fellow Jews to a Roman officer.

Since the Hollywood production code would not permit this to appear on screen explicitly, it had to be implied by the actors.

Vidal claims that Wyler, although hesitant, took his advice, and that the results can be seen in the film.

Vidal personally discussed the idea with Stephen Boyd, who played Messala, but not with Charlton Heston who, Wyler feared, would protest at the idea.

Heston has since denied the claim, suggesting Vidal had little input in the final script.

So, grab your copy of the film, follow @tfdvdclub on Twitter and join us tonight at 8pm.