1958: ‘Ben-Hur’ rebuilds Rome

From the Army Archerd Archive

June 9, 1958: BUON GIORNO or GOOD MORNING from Rome: The sets which have been built for “Ben-Hur” are absolutely beyond belief — and description. Both interiors and exteriors are so magnificent they should be preserved along with the Rome of the past! … The Circus Maximus built for the famous chariot race is fantastic. This sequence alone will cost one million bucks. The arena covers 18 acres … Giant statues four stories high and covered with gold paint, have been created by Edward Carfagno of MGM. They form an island in the middle of the track, around which the chariots tear. The stands for spectators are five stories high. It makes the true ruins of Rome’s Ancient Circus where their chariot races were held, look picayune by comparison … Standing in the middle of the Circus is like standing in the middle of L.A.’s Coliseum (sans Dodgers, of course). It is truly a breathtaking sight. Especially when the chariots whiz around the track and thousands of Italian extras drown the air with their screaming! … Yakima Canutt’s son Joe is doubling for Charlton Heston in the chariot races which Canutt Sr. staged … (2008 update: Joe Canutt who was 21 when he doubled for the then 33-year-old Heston in “Ben-Hur,” tells me, “I remember when I finally got home from the location, a lot of people thought I was dead. But I was lucky I just had a few superficial cuts. I have always kept in shape.” He, too, recalls how impressed he was by the grandeur of the set(s). “MGM had it all on the line with this sequence. I doubt if anyone today would know how to do a scene like this — six, seven cameras and a quarter of a million feet of film rolled. You couldn’t do that either today!” Now, 71, Canutt was headed to Utah to go fishing. He’d gotten “tired of the biz” — stuntman, second unit director — bought/sold his shrimp biz and was now angling for a trout dinner. He worked with Heston as a stunt double for many films starting with the first, “Far Horizons,” and including “El Cid,” “Fall of the Roman Empire,” “Khartoum” and the last, “Treasure Island.” They remained friends throughout the years and Canutt told me he visited Heston at home during the sad days when Chuck was stricken with Alzheimer’s. Joe was on hand at Heston’s final scene, his funeral.)

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