There are thousands of urban movie myths and legends circulating the globe. Since the beginning of movie history, there have been myths about films that have bloopers that missed the editor’s eye. One of the most famous ones we thought was interesting – because it includes a wrist watch – is the mystery of the wristwatch making an appearance in the classic movie Ben Hur. We have scoured the web and its reliable resources available to tackle this subject, as well as a few examples of watch bloopers and time-related controversies!
For any readers who are not familiar with the movie Ben Hur, it was supposed to be set in ancient Rome. The main character was played by Charlton Heston, one of the most well-known male Hollywood stars in history. It is unknown where the rumor of a wrist watch appearing in the film began, but for decades there have been claims that there is a part in the chariot race scene where Ben Hur is seen with a wristwatch on. Some reports simply state it is a watch, while others claim it is gold and some say it was definitely a Rolex. In the next frame when the camera shifts, he is no longer wearing it, according to popular belief. There were also rumors circulating that a red Ferrari could be seen in the background – and that a stunt actor was killed during the filming of the chariot race. So is this true or just a myth? Our first clue in the mystery was from the lack of supporting video footage on YouTube or any other internet video-hosting site. We all know that all things odd, unique or interesting make it onto YouTube – even those that happened in old movies. There are dozens of scenes of the Ben Hur chariot race online, none of which show the supposed continuity error where the watch appears.
In a 2001 news story published by the New York Times, a home-video of the making of Ben Hur is studied. They noted that Mr. Heston himself was making an audio commentary about the movie. His comments are stretched fairly far apart, but he says the myth about the red Ferrari is untrue, as well as the myth of the wristwatch and the report of a stunt man being killed during filming. He also mentions that the biggest issue they faced was a screaming angry crowd of local extras who found out they were only going to be used for one scene. This report also notes at the end that Mr. Heston’s commentary provides coverage of the “five incarnations of Ben Hur.” There was the original book, written by Lew Wallace, along with a stage play, a silent movie in 1907 and a 1925 edition before this film was released.
Perhaps the rumors of these hidden movie mistakes were the result of overly-anticipated excitement from others who had seen the 1926 film. In a film review report written and published by Fordham University of New York, it is noted that there are two background items in the 1926 version that were bizarre for that era – a naked male slave chained to a wall and a topless woman. Since the 1959 film was indeed a remake of the 1926 silent film, perhaps people had the idea that something odd had to happen in the new movie also. Keep in mind that both of these films were famous in their day – and each one took the cake for being the most expensive to produce. The 1926 film was over $4 million, while the 1959 film was a whopping $15 million to create. It was so expensive that MGM put their existence on the line to make it. Verified both in the previously-referenced New York Times report and a Film Site Organization report by critic Tim Dirks, the already financially-distraught MGM faced the possibility of closing if Ben Hur didn’t become an extensive success. In Tim Dirks’ report, he notes that the film’s great success saved MGM from bankruptcy. The New York Times notes the commentary including original dialog of someone saying “Pull it off or there could be no more studio.”
It seems that MGM invested a lot of money in making this film. It doesn’t seem likely that they would allow their set managers to let the main character enter a chariot race with a gold watch. In the commentary, Heston notes that he had to wear leather braces that came up to his elbows. Keep in mind the physics of a chariot race. From a distance, it is easy to see in the movie that the chariots are traveling at incredible speeds. Even on a smooth track, this was bumpy and dangerous and the racers, along with Mr. Heston, had to keep their balance to stay safe on the chariots, so the costumes had to be free of dangling or superfluous objects. A production company facing bankruptcy would not send an A-list actor to a dangerous filming shoot without the proper attire – if they had consistently been that careless, MGM would not still be in business today. In a report published by Virginia Tech University, Brian Hollenberger presents his research on chariots and warfare. The aspect of physics, chariot composition and the difficulty of steering at such speeds are all noted, along with the typical armor gear, which included braces that Mr. Heston described. Mr. Heston passed away in 2008. His autobiography was published in 1995, in which he once again states that he was not wearing a wristwatch during the chariot race scene.
This isn’t the only time a watch has become an issue of controversy in Hollywood. In fact, many people today mistakenly think of the scene in another 1967 film when referring to the famous Ben Hur watch myth. In the previously-referenced movie review list from Fordham University, it is also noted by film reviewers that there is clearly a gold wristwatch visible in the movie “The Viking Queen,” set in the first century.
On another contrary note, the Viking Queen was a movie that was actually about a Celtic Queen. The Internet Movie Database also gives reference to the 1989 Civil War film “Glory,” in which a child on the right side of the screen by a white fence waves goodbye to Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins. When he waves, a digital wristwatch is visible:
In conclusion, regarding the rumor about Charlton Heston wearing a wristwatch in Ben Hur, his 1995 autobiography verbally dismisses the myth. There is also no proof of live video showing this incident, so it is safe to say it is all a hoax.
The world loves excitement, so the rumors definitely add an interesting appeal to the movie, simply for the sake of “watching for the watch.”