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I watched the whole of Ben Hur for the first time this afternoon and was wowed by the photography, particularly the chariot race, to the point that I did a bit of research and found the following technical description -
The cameras used during the chariot race also presented problems. The 70mm lenses had a minimum focal length of 50 feet (15 m), and the camera was mounted on a small Italian-made car so the camera crew could keep in front of the chariots. But the horses accelerated down the 1,500-foot (460 m) straightaway much faster than the car could, and the long focal length left photographers Martin and Canutt with too little time to get their shots. The production company purchased a more powerful American car, but the horses still proved too fast. Even with a head start, the larger American car could give the filmmakers only a few more seconds of shot time. Since the horses had to be running at top speed for the best visual impact, Marton chose to film the chariot race with a smaller lens with a much shorter minimum focal length. He also decided that the car should stay only a few feet ahead of the horses. This was highly dangerous, for if the car did not make its turns or slowed down, a deadly crash with the horses could occur. The changes, however, solved the problems the camera crew was encountering. As filming progressed, vast amounts of footage were shot for this sequence. The ratio of footage shot to footage used was 263:1, one of the highest ratios ever for a film.
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There was a story going around that the actor whose chariot crashed, died of his injuries, but the footage was so good that it was used. I don't know if there's any truth in it or not.
Several urban legends exist regarding the chariot sequence. One claims that a stuntman died during filming. Stuntman Nosher Powell claims in his autobiography, "We had a stunt man killed in the third week, and it happened right in front of me. You saw it, too, because the cameras kept turning and it's in the movie." But movie historian Monica Silveira Cyrino discounted this claim in 2005, and said there were no published accounts of any serious injuries or deaths during filming of the chariot race. Indeed, the only recorded death to occur during the filming was that of producer Sam Zimbalist, who died of a heart attack at the age of 57 on November 4, 1958, while on the set. MGM executives asked Wyler to take over the executive producer's job, with an extra salary of $100,000. Wyler agreed, although he had assistance from experienced MGM executives as well. Production supervisor Henry Henigson was so overcome by stress-related heart problems during the shoot that doctors feared for his life and ordered him off the set. But Henigson returned to the production shortly thereafter, and did not die. Nor were any horses injured during the shoot; in fact, the number of hours the horses could be used each day was actually shortened to keep them out of the summer heat. Another urban legend states that a red Ferrari can be seen during the chariot race. The book Movie Mistakes claims this is a myth. Heston, in a DVD commentary track for the film, mentions that a third urban legend says he wore a wristwatch during the chariot race. Heston points out that he wore leather bracers up to the elbow.
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