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New Release Review (DVD/VOD) - THE MAN WHO SAVED BEN HUR

A documentarian connects with his cousin, a one-time assistant director and friend to the stars.





Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Joe Forte



While the title suggests this is another documentary aimed at a hardcore cinephile audience, this is first and foremost a tribute to a man, rather than an Assistant Director. The Man Who Saved Ben Hur is a reminder that, just like Assistant Directors, the elderly often don't get the attention they deserve.

The Man Who Saved Ben Hur is on DVD and VOD from July 26th.



Anyone who has stuck around after a Marvel movie in anticipation of their famous post-credits stingers can attest to how long end credits can run for. Everyone from the director to the person who ensures the stars never run out of toilet roll receives their due credit, but that wasn't always the case. For much of Hollywood's history, only department heads received a credit, which is why most pre-1970s movies simply conclude with a title card reading 'The End', and maybe a list of the main acting talent.

As such, thousands of crew members never got to see their names on screen. One such is John Alarimo, one of Hollywood's top Assistant Directors. Among his many credits was the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, for which he provided a vital role. Shot in Rome, none of the film's American crew could speak Italian, while none of the local crew members could speak English. An Italian-American, Alarimo was fluent in both languages, and thus acted as a liaison between the two parties, becoming an essential right hand man to director William Wyler.



Documentarian Joe Forte was a second cousin of Alarimo, but never really got to know him, thanks mainly to his conservative Catholic family somewhat shunning Alarimo for a lifestyle they disapproved of. Then, when Alarimo was 86, Forte found himself living three blocks from his second cousin, and decided to reconnect, filming their interactions.

Like many old people, Alarimo's home is filled with memories, filed away in plastic bags, but his mementos make for a treasure trove of Hollywood lore. Innocuous looking padded envelopes contain Christmas cards from Rock Hudson, photographs of Alarimo with some of the world's most beautiful women wrapped around him, or portraits sketched by Charlton Heston. Many of the photographs in Alarimo's haphazard collection have never been seen before, and are a joy to behold for classic cinema buffs.



However, while the title suggests this is another documentary aimed at a hardcore cinephile audience, it soon becomes apparent that Forte has first and foremost made a tribute to Alarimo the man, rather than Alarimo the Assistant Director. A lifelong loner, Alarimo speaks of the transient nature of filmmaking, how he would make famous friends for the duration of a shoot, only to never see them again once the picture wraps. Retired since the 1980s due to a lack of work offers,  we get the impression that Alarimo has lived a lonely life since. He confesses to the highlight of his social life being a weekly trip to a surgery, due to a debilitating condition in his legs.

Early on, Alarimo is withdrawn about his past. He briefly discusses a wartime friendship with a young Texan GI who was accidentally shot and killed when mistaken for a Japanese soldier by one of his own men, dismissing it as "just one of those things", but we can see in his eyes he's merely playing the tough guy. Later, tales of afternoons spent in the company of Rock Hudson and Gore Vidal suggest Alarimo may have lived a secret life, but he refuses to discuss his orientation with Forte.



Like the big fight at the end of a Rocky movie, the film leads up to Alarimo's late life debut as a "song and dance man", on the stage of a Los Angeles Karaoke bar. His choice of song is telling - You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You - and the morning after his performance, Alarimo opens up to Forte about the importance of their friendship. The Man Who Saved Ben Hur is a reminder that, just like Assistant Directors, the elderly often don't get the attention they deserve.



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