Documentary Review: ‘The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur’

Greetings again from the darkness. The title may limit interest in this documentary as it might be mistaken for an “on the set, behind the scenes” tell-all appealing only to the most ardent film history buffs. However, this plays best as a tender tale of an elderly man who lived an exciting life, but finds things pretty empty as he nears the end.

Filmmaker Joe Forte was cautioned by his deeply Catholic family to stay away from the movie business, lest he “end up like Cousin Johnny”. Just a few years ago, Joe decided to track down Cousin Johnny, and he discovered they were separated by only a few city blocks. Johnny Alarimo was one of the most successful Assistant Directors from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, and on the day he invited Joe and his camera into his home, the apartment was filled with boxes of memories.

A treasure trove of photographs – many featuring Johnny posing with the Hollywood elite – were organized in files, sleeves and boxes. And the best part was that, despite being in his late 80’s, Johnny could recall the stories corresponding with most every snapshot.

Being a relative, Mr. Forte treads lightly on the topics Johnny wishes to avoid. We learn of his close friend from WWII, Henry “Pet” Petrich. It’s clear the two shared a bond, though Johnny remains pretty tight-lipped on details … just like on his stories regarding time with Rock Hudson and Gore Vidal. The likely secret life would remain secret forever, but we find ourselves liking this charming man more and more as the film continues.

We do get the Ben-Hur story as it’s disclosed that Johnny was director William Wyler’s Assistant Director, and was an integral part of getting the movie made as he acted as on set translator between the English and Italian speaking folks. Wyler’s personal letter to Alarimo is every bit as valued as the autographed portrait sketch of Johnny by “Chuck H” between takes. Though he was the last surviving crew member of Ben-Hur, it’s also a reminder that only department heads received on screen credit until the 1970’s – robbing many contributors of their rightful place in Hollywood lore.

As Joe and Johnny grow closer as friends, we as viewers find ourselves connected to Johnny. We are saddened when he admits that his doctor’s appointments for medical issues are the highlight of his social life these days. Joe provides Johnny with exactly what he wants, needs and deserves … a chance to be the star and tell his stories. More importantly, he prevents an elderly man from living out his final days in loneliness and solitude. No matter how many celebrities one has met, nothing compares to the warmth of a friend.

Available on DVD & VOD July 26.

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