Charlton Heston Had One Worry When It Came To Ben-Hur's Famous Chariot Race

Where the industry now embraces the trend of "too big to fail" superhero blockbusters, there was a point in Hollywood history where sprawling religious epics were the big ticket item, with "Ben-Hur" enduring as one of the most successful of its kind. It would be over 38 years until "Titanic," followed by "The Return of the King," would break the unprecedented Oscar streak set by William Wyler's 1959 epic, which took home 11 Academy Awards in one night.

Based on General Lew Wallace's 1880 novel of the same name, "Ben-Hur" stars former Hollywood megastar Charlton Heston as the affluent Jewish prince who is thrust on an epic journey of faith, friendship, and betrayal after his best friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) imprisons him for speaking ill against the Roman Empire.

Clocking in at over three and a half hours, "Ben-Hur" is as much an acting showcase as it is a spectacular display of scope. Though there may be few, its action sequences are incredibly memorable. The chaotic sea battle/prison escape is staggering to watch unfold, but the identity of "Ben-Hur" would be nothing without the chariot race.

To this day, the chariot battle between Judah and Messala is a riveting piece of filmmaking whose practicality can still be felt on the screen.

Heston believed one-on-one rehearsal could only go so far

Not only did they construct this entire set for one expansive scene, they also shot an actual live chariot race within its walls, performed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. According to an interview Heston gave on Gloria Hunniford's religious program, not only did Canutt direct the race, but helped the "Ten Commandments" actor train on the chariot for five weeks prior to the big shoot.

Heston was grateful for Canutt's guidance, but even with all of the preparation, he still felt nervous about interacting with other chariots during the scene, an apprehension his mentor squashed with a great piece of advice:

"I said, 'all the time it's just been you and me and this one team, several hours a day. When we do this sequence there'll be eight other teams out there. That's not so easy.' And he looked at me, he said, 'Chuck, you just make sure you stay in the chariot. I guarantee you're gonna win the damn race.'

Heston would ultimately show his gratitude by presenting the Honorary Oscar to Canutt at the 39th Academy Awards in 1967 for all of his dedicated work within the industry ("El Cid"). As for the chariot race, I'd say the finished result speaks for itself.

In addition to its practicality, this sequence lives in the sounds of the moment, with no music to underscore the tension between Judah and Messala. The whips, cheers, and horse clopping clog the soundtrack to make an already pivotal scene even more suspenseful.

Stuntman Joe Canutt was nearly flown from the chariot

While Heston wasn't thrown from the chariot, that didn't mean someone else wasn't. Within the race, there's a shocking moment where Judah isn't able to veer away from a chariot wreck right in front of him, sending him flying up and over. According to a Snopes report, the stunt was performed by Yakima's son, Joe, who was often Heston's double. He was only left with a gash on his chin that required some stitches, but in the film, Wyler made it look like a scrape across Judah's head.

It's still pretty shocking to see just how much airtime Joe gets. Accidents like these are no stranger to the film adaptations. In researching the history of the 1925 silent epic starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, you'll find one of the most chaotic stories of Hollywood set recklessness, let alone all of the barbarousness when the production was still in Rome. Horse deaths, fires, bets, fascists, and the theft of priceless historical artifacts are among the many disasters associated with that infamous shoot.

The only reckless stunt Timur Bekmambetov's 2016 reimagining can be accused of is releasing a poorly marketed $100 million remake of a Best Picture winner at the end of the summer movie season.

"Ben-Hur" is currently available to rent or buy on most streaming platforms.