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The Deadly Rumor Surrounding the Classic Film ‘Ben-Hur’

Photo Credit:  Warner Bros. / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MMfan / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MMfan / MovieStillsDB

When it comes to classic Hollywood epics, 1959’s Ben-Hur is probably one of the most well-known, and the most beloved. The film’s sweeping visuals, action-packed depictions of ancient life, and enduring star power have made it an icon in every sense of the word. But Ben-Hur‘s legacy is plagued by one rumor that suggests that the most expensive film ever made in the 1950s cost more than just money.

Ben-Hur was the biggest film of the ’50s

A remake of the original 1925 silent film, Ben-Hur was one of the most ambitious films ever made at the time. Released in 1959, it received glowing reviews from critics and movie-goers who were wowed with the elaborate costumes, realistic sets, and sheer excess needed to pull it all off.

Behind-the-scenes of filming Ben-Hur
Behind-the-scenes of filming the chariot race scene. (Photo Credit:(Photo Credit: Warner Bros. / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / mdew / MovieStillsDB)

Ben-Hur, with Charlton Heston in the title role, was given the biggest budget of any movie in history at the time – over $15 million dollars. Featured in the film are over 200 camels, 2,500 horses, thousands of extras, and some of vintage Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The story, based on the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace, follows Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince. He embarks on an adventure to seek revenge on his Roman enemy Messala and finds himself crossing paths with none other than Jesus Christ. The epic tale unfolds over a lengthy three and a half hours.

The deadly chariot race scene

The rumor goes that in the chariot race scene of the film, you can see a stuntman in the background die. The scene was filmed on a massive 18-acre set, the biggest set ever used at the time. It was made from scratch in Italy, and constructing the chariot race was no easy task even though it only lasts five minutes in the final cut of the movie.

A still from the chariot race scene in Ben-Hur
A still from the chariot race in Ben-Hur shows Ben-Hur (L) and Messala before the rumored death scene. (Photo Credit: Warner Bros. / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MMfan / MovieStillsDB)

With sand imported from Mexico and 7,000 extras, it took months to film the scene. The sequence’s climax happens when Ben-Hur and his enemy Messala begin to ram into each other’s chariots. Eventually, one of Messala’s wheels breaks and he is launched off the chariot. This exact moment is where the rumor in question originated, with some believing the stuntman playing Messala died after being thrown off the chariot.

Is the rumor true?

The short answer is no. The story likely came from an overzealous retelling of the events that took things out of proportion. Messala’s stuntman, Joe Canutt, was injured when he was flung off the chariot, but nothing close to life-threatening. Canutt reportedly needed some stitches on his chin and was back to work in no time.

More from us: Classic Movie Twists That Turned Our Universe Upside Down

Fortunately, industry safety standards have improved over the decades and on-set tragedies are relatively uncommon in modern filmmaking.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast