Ben-Hur is still one of the most epic and thrilling movies to ever come out of Hollywood. It was a marvel of technical filmmaking and grand storytelling, and it’s now held up as one of those movies they just don't make any more. But that level of spectacle always comes at a price, and in many ways, this iconic movie was a nightmare to make. Here are 40 jaw-dropping secrets about Ben-Hur, "the entertainment experience of a lifetime."
1. The chariot race required its own director
William Wyler may be the director credited with bringing Ben-Hur to the big screen, but he didn't do the job all on his own. The filmmakers enlisted the help of Andrew Marton to take charge of the still-talked-about-today chariot-race sequence.
Given the mammoth effort involved in pulling off one of cinema's most dynamic races, it's understandable that Marton was hurt that he didn't get a suitable on-screen credit. He was listed as a second-unit director for the film, while he felt he should have been explicitly credited as the director of the chariot race.
2. The chariot arena was truly something else
It took about 1,000 people to build the set for the arena that would eventually host the famous chariot race. The finished set sprawled across 18 acres; it was roughly 2,000 feet long and 65 feet wide.
This made that one set of Ben-Hur the biggest one to have ever been made for the movies up to that point. And it reportedly took 40,000 tons of imported sand to fill it up. It's a good job that final sequence was so memorable!
3. A famous stuntman put together the chariot race
The chariot race sequence was a monumental undertaking, and it took months of work to bring it all together. To help pull it off, the filmmakers turned to stuntman Yakima Canutt, who was famous for a dramatic stunt in John Ford's Stagecoach.
It was Canutt's job to figure out the stunts for the chariot race and train all the drivers. He also trained actor Charlton Heston to drive the chariots and do his own stunt work. Heston made himself available months before the cameras started to roll to get in shape.
4. Heston was handy in a chariot
Weirdly, Heston had come to the set of Ben-Hur having already had experience driving a chariot. He'd had to take charge of a two-horse cart for The Ten Commandments, which had been released just three years before Ben-Hur.
But even though Heston had the skill and the experience to pull off the stunts in Ben-Hur, he was still worried about the scale of the task ahead. Stunt coordinator Canutt told him, "You just stay in the chariot; I guarantee you'll win the damn race."