Johnny Alarimo was an assistant director on the classic masterpiece, Ben-Hur. The director, William Wyler, wrote him a letter of thanks. Charlton Heston drew his portrait on set and signed it “Chuck H.” But Alarimo received no credit, not for Ben-Hur nor any of the other numerous films he worked on because at the time studios only credited department heads. Johnny and many like him are lost to history.
Johnny was an old man living amongst relics of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood when his second cousin, documentarian Joe Forte, showed up to make friends. Johnny’s lived a glamourous, star-studded life and had a successful career in film, but all that’s left is the dazzling detritus: a cigarette case engraved by Elizabeth Taylor, a stack of Christmas cards sent by Rock Hudson, a mention in a Gore Vidal book. Sure it’ll bring a bundle at auction, but it doesn’t keep you warm at night.
This film works on two levels: first and obviously, as a piece of film history. Johnny Alarimo saved lots of memorabilia from Ben-Hur and other sets, usually those filmed in Italy, where he provided invaluable translation. But it’s also just the story of two men, vaguely related, trying to forge a friendship. That’s harder than you might think considering one of them is a lonely old man. But it turns out that Hollywood may attract a certain kind of person: the kind of person who makes superficial friendship during the 3 or 4 months of shooting and then moves on. Johnny has never had a lasting relationship, and now, at the age of 89, does he have regrets?
I felt heart-broken for much of this film’s run time. Old people, like film credits before the 1970s, are often forgotten. He was the last surviving American crew member of Ben-Hur, but the L.A. Times refused to run his obituary because they choose not to honour those “behind the scenes.” This documentary very quietly shows you that you can have hundreds of bonafide celebrities on your rolodex but even all together they don’t add up to one real friend.
Film buffs will love this rare glimpse at little-seen memorabilia, but I think this movie speaks to all of us. The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur is available on VOD and with just an hour’s worth of viewing, you can do your bit to remember this man and his passion.