The 1959 MGM version of Ben-Hur is best remembered for its chariot race, which happens to be an imitation of the superior 1925 race for that studio’s mammoth – and highly problematic – production of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ramon Novarro, soon to become a superstar, and Francis X. Bushman, a former 1910s superstar, are the two rivals in the film.
The text below is from my Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise.
After experiencing the relatively easy production of The Midshipman, Novarro found himself back on the Ben-Hur grind in late summer , getting ready for the climactic chariot race, which became a major Hollywood event. For the filming of the master shot, MGM invited stars, directors, writers, publicists, and local dignitaries, many of whom were free to come because other studios had declared that Saturday, October 3, an unofficial holiday. Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Betty Bronson, Colleen Moore, Lillian Gish, and others were on hand along with three thousand extras to cheer Novarro – insured by the studio for $3 million – Bushman, ten stuntmen charioteers, and their forty-eight horses.
Perched atop a one hundred-foot platform, [director Fred] Niblo was officially present to supervise the filming, though the actual direction was the work of B. Reeves Eason and his sixty-two assistants, including then-unknowns Henry Hathaway and William Wyler (the director of the 1959 remake). To cover every possible angle, a record forty-two cameras were strategically placed throughout the set. There were cameras in a car driven in front of the galloping horses, inside a pit in the racetrack, behind soldiers’ shields, and even on an airplane circling the stadium.
The morning was foggy, but shortly before noon the fog lifted. Huge tapestries were flung back, and the twelve chariots dashed forward. The riders circled the racetrack, lap after lap, with no major incidents until the sixth lap, when stuntman Mickey Millerick’s chariot caught the inner rail at the south turn. Millerick lost control as his chariot careened toward the middle of the track. Sensing disaster, assistant director Henry Hathaway ran onto the track frantically waving his arms to warn the approaching charioteers, but to no avail. In a matter of seconds, three chariots crashed into Millerick’s, while a fourth leaped over it. “Through a miracle,” Variety marveled years later, “no one was hurt.” No one person perhaps, but, according to Novarro, seven horses were injured so badly that they had to be put down.
Niblo often told reporters that Novarro himself performed all the stunts, though that was mere publicity. Stuntman Buster Gallagher took over from Novarro in all the dangerous stunts, and rode Novarro’s chariot on October 3. MGM’s $3 million insurance on Novarro notwithstanding, [MGM bosses Louis B.] Mayer and [Irving G.] Thalberg wanted Judah Ben-Hur to survive intact until the last shot of the picture had been taken.
Eason continued working in the Circus [Maximus set] for weeks, shooting close-ups of details – Novarro and Bushman’s faces, racing wheels, lashing whips – that would add excitement to the race on-screen. From a total of more than 200,000 feet of film (53,000 of which were shot on October 3), editor Lloyd Nosler and his assistants cut a 750-foot, seven-and-a-half-minute sequence that is one of the most exhilarating ever recorded on film. All in all, Ben-Hur‘s editors had to create a coherent story out of one million feet of film, of which 12,000 were used for the final cut.