To clarify right away: a stunt performer did not die during the production of “Ben-Hur”.
For years, it was rumored that Stephen Boyd’s stunt double for the film’s famous chariot racing series was either thrown from a chariot or trampled and crushed by horses (depending on which rumor you may have heard). The rumor was probably started by stunt performer Nosher Powell who stated in his autobiography “Nosher” that a stuntman has indeed died. The fact is – confirmed in Emilie Raymond’s hero-worshipping 2006 book “From My Cold, Dead Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics” – no stunt performers died during “Ben-Hur,” and the only injury was to Charlton Heston Joe’s stunt double. Canutt, who hit a chariot with his chin after being thrown into the air. Canutt lived until 1986.
The chariot series in “Ben-Hur” is one of the most notable examples of high-profile stunt work in Hollywood history, as well as one of the great action scenes in cinema in general. The achievements achieved in the scene are all top-notch and will thrill the most jaded action fan. Heston didn’t perform any of his own stunts, although Boyd did, donning special armor to be dragged behind a chariot. But don’t worry, “Ben-Hur” fans, because it was just a dummy being trampled under the thundering horse hooves.
In 1997, Heston taped an interview with the BBC, and he seems to have overlooked Boyd’s derring-do, proclaiming that actors just shouldn’t – maybe shouldn’t – perform their own stunts. Now we live in a time when Tom Cruise is routinely and deliberately risking his life to perform increasingly wild stunts for ‘Mission: Impossible’ movies. Heston, notoriously stodgy and conservative in his demeanor, probably wouldn’t have heard of that.
“The actor who tells you he does his own stunts is either an idiot or a liar”
Charlton Heston was not hesitant about the talents of stunt performers. Indeed, he seemingly wanted to give second-unit stunt coordinators and directors their credit when it came to contributing to action scenes in movies. Heston is not talking about an actor’s ego, but he does clarify that actors doing their own stunts should not be considered the center of a stunt-heavy screenplay. Heston points out that he knows a bit about horses, but has never taken a stunt scene to show off. Heston never even wanted to direct, and once said in an interview with Dick Cavett that he preferred directing a production at the casting, editing and scripting level. Heston still liked to check a movie he was working on, but never as a director, nor as a stuntman. heston said:
“The actor who tells you he does his own stunts is either an idiot or a liar. Now there are shots you can take. I am a modestly skilled rider… And the stunt coordinator, or the director of the second unit , are always the people who know everything there is to know about it, and I always say, ‘Can I have this shot?’ And they’ll say, “Yeah, don’t do this Chuck,” I said, “Okay.” And if they say, ‘Yes, you can do this’, I do it, it’s very simple.”
Heston may have asked, but the stunt coordinators said no. So he didn’t.
The old Heston and the new Heston
Heston, it should be noted, was once a more left-wing liberal who was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1965 to 1971. He cared about actors’ rights and even marched for civil rights in the 1960s. By the time he made the above statement in 1997, his politics had shifted drastically in the opposite direction and he became head of the National Rifle Association, where he often gave aggrieved speeches about vague culture war stuff. Latter Day Heston became in many ways the central celebrity face of the modern conservative movement.
However, both versions of Heston seem to believe in the rights of actors and ensure that credit is given where it was deserved. Too bad Heston Boyd seems to have forgotten in his statement.
In the same 1997 interview, Heston lamented the changing face of Hollywood and how much money was being spent. In 1997, a cheap movie cost $23 million, while “Ben-Hur” cost just $14 million. He complained that a movie like “Ben-Hur” couldn’t be made in 1997, largely ignoring that historical epics like “Braveheart” still won awards. By the way, in 2016 a new film version of “Ben-Hur”, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, was to be made with a budget of about $100 million. It went unseen by the masses and is one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.
Of course, Heston’s comments didn’t apply to Hollywood in 2016 — he died in 2008 — but he was right that large-scale Roman epics are indeed still out of fashion. We can give him so much.