Legendary Stunt Performers
Yakima Canutt – Ben-Hur
Ben-Hur Chariot Race
Cinecitta Studios, Rome, Italy
The chariot race segment in Ben-Hur (1959) was directed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. Joe Canutt (Yak’s son) doubled for Charlton Heston. During one of the crashes, in which Judah Ben-Hur’s horses jump over a crashed chariot, the younger Canutt was thrown from his chariot onto the tongue of his chariot. He managed to climb back into his chariot and bring it back under control. The sequence looked so good that it was included in the film, with a close-up of Heston climbing back into the chariot. Canutt got a slight cut on his chin, but it was the only injury in the incredibly dangerous sequence. Stuntman Nosher Powell, who worked on the film, states in his biography, that Yakima Canutt went pale as a ghost when the chariot crashed. The crash was not planned, and everybody – including Yakima Canutt – believed that Joe Canutt had died.
The rumor that Stephen Boyd’s double was killed during the chariot race is false. According to second-unit director Yakima Canutt, the “Messala” that was run over, a Roman soldier standing on the center island who was hit by a chariot and the driver of a spilled rig who jumped out of the way of one chariot but was immediately run over by another one were all articulated and weighted dummies (made with movable arm and leg joints), so when they were hit they “reacted” the way a normal human body would in that situation. A combination of adroit placement and expert editing made the dummies look like real people being run over.