Not only did they construct this entire set for one expansive scene, they also shot an actual live chariot race within its walls, performed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. According to an interview Heston gave on Gloria Hunniford‘s religious program, not only did Canutt direct the race, but helped the “Ten Commandments” actor train on the chariot for five weeks prior to the big shoot.
Heston was grateful for Canutt’s guidance, but even with all of the preparation, he still felt nervous about interacting with other chariots during the scene, an apprehension his mentor squashed with a great piece of advice:
“I said, ‘all the time it’s just been you and me and this one team, several hours a day. When we do this sequence there’ll be eight other teams out there. That’s not so easy.’ And he looked at me, he said, ‘Chuck, you just make sure you stay in the chariot. I guarantee you’re gonna win the damn race.’
Heston would ultimately show his gratitude by presenting the Honorary Oscar to Canutt at the 39th Academy Awards in 1967 for all of his dedicated work within the industry (“El Cid”). As for the chariot race, I’d say the finished result speaks for itself.
In addition to its practicality, this sequence lives in the sounds of the moment, with no music to underscore the tension between Judah and Messala. The whips, cheers, and horse clopping clog the soundtrack to make an already pivotal scene even more suspenseful.