The Gruesome Rumor At The Center Of Old Hollywood Epic Ben-Hur

There was a time, according to Escapist Magazine, when the epic — a lengthy, sprawling, and magnificent film in the vein of "Titanic" or the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy — was a staple of the film industry. Trends in filmmaking like this come and go, and at the time (August 2021), Escapist was predicting a comeback of the genre.

The same website also notes that the golden age of the epic was the 1950s, and perhaps there was no bigger epic, and none with more lasting cultural relevance, than "Ben-Hur." The 1959 film, starring Charlton Heston at the height of his career, was itself a remake of a silent film from decades earlier. It tells the story of man whose story intersects with that of Jesus Christ at key points, and it includes a few heart-pounding action scenes that, at the time, pushed the limits of what could be accomplished on film.

The movie has also been dogged for seven decades by a rumor that a stuntman died during filming. Further still, according to Classic Hollywood Central, the myth claims that if you look hard enough, you can watch the stunt performer pay for his craft with his life.

The Scene In Question

The scene in which viewers can supposedly watch a stuntman die, according to Snopes, is the famed chariot-race scene (above). In it, the title character and his enemy, Massala, battle it out in front of a crowd of thousands, racing chariots through the course at breakneck speeds, pulled by teams of horses. Though it lasts for a bit less than five minutes, it was one of the most ambitious scenes ever put to film by that point. As PoloOnline notes, the film's producers built a set from scratch in Italy, an 18-acre set that was, at the time, the largest ever built. Sand was brought in from Mexico to protect the horses' hooves. Classic Hollywood Central reports that 7,000 extras were hired, and filming it took several months.

The pivotal moment regarding this rumor occurs here, in this clip via YouTube. Ben-Hur (Heston) and his enemy, Massala (Stephen Boyd) begin attacking each other and their chariots. Then one of Massala's wheels breaks, and he is thrown from the vehicle.

Supposedly, this is the point at which a stuntman died, though the character of Massala survives the initial fall.

The Rumor Is False

So, can viewers watch the death of a stuntman that somehow failed to get cut from the final edit? In 1959's "Ben-Hur," no. Classic Hollywood Central reports that the rumor is the result of two facts being conflated. The stuntman filling in for Massala was Joe Canutt, according to True West Magazine, and he did get injured in that scene. Specifically, Joe, the son of the film's stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, did get thrown from his chariot and suffered a minor injury, cutting his chin. "He managed to get back up and got right back to work," notes Classic Hollywood Central. Snopes claims his injury required four stitches. So no, viewers don't get to watch a stuntman die on-screen; they get to watch a stuntman suffer a comparatively minor injury on-screen.

But a stuntman did die in "Ben-Hur," only it was the 1926 silent film and not the 1959 remake. In much the same way that Canutt got injured, the death took place during the chariot scene, when a wheel broke. "The hub hit the ground and the guy shot up in the air about thirty feet," said Francis X. Bushman, who played Messala in the silent film, via Classic Hollywood Central. "I turned and saw him up there — it was like a slow-motion film. He fell on a pile of lumber and died of internal injuries."