Eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice. The race took five weeks to film. Tour buses visited the set every hour.
The section in the middle of the circus, the spina, is a known feature of circi, although its size may be exaggerated to aid filmmaking. The golden dolphin lap counter was a feature of the Circus Maximus in Rome.
Charlton Heston spent four weeks learning how to drive a chariot. He was taught by the stunt crew, who offered to teach the entire cast, but Heston and Boyd were the only ones who took them up on the offer (Boyd had to learn in just two weeks, due to his late casting). At the beginning of the chariot race, Heston shook the reins and nothing happened; the horses remained motionless. Finally someone way up on top of the set yelled, "Giddy-up!" The horses then roared into action, and Heston was flung backward off the chariot.
To give the scene more impact and realism, three lifelike dummies were placed at key points in the race to give the appearance of men being run over by chariots. Most notable is the stand-in dummy for Stephen Boyd's Messala that gets tangled up under the horses, getting battered by their hooves. This resulted in one of the most grisly fatal injuries in motion picture history up until then, and shocked audiences.
Urban LegendsThere are several urban legends surrounding the chariot sequence, one of which states 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". There is no conclusive evidence to back up Powell's claim and it has been adamantly denied by director William Wyler, who states that neither man nor horse was injured in the famous scene. The movie's stunt director, Yakima Canutt, stated that no serious injuries or deaths occurred during filming.
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 the DVD commentary track, mentions a third urban legend that is not true: That he wore a wristwatch. He points out that he was wearing leather bracers right up to the elbow.)However, one of the best-remembered moments in the race came from a near-fatal accident. When Ben-Hur's chariot jumps another chariot which has crashed in its path, the charioteer is seen to be almost thrown from his mount and only just manages to hang on and climb back in to continue the race. In reality, while the jump was planned, the character being flipped into the air was not planned, and stuntman Joe Canutt, son of stunt director Yakima Canutt, was considered fortunate to escape with only a minor chin injury. Nonetheless, when director Wyler intercut the long shot of Canutt's leap with a close-up of Heston clambering back into his chariot, a memorable scene resulted.
Note goof - Can you see tire tracks at ~3:50?