You won’t find many credits for John Alarimo Jr. on IMDb. But the man was entrenched in the Hollywood system for years. He ate lunch with Gore Vidal, sat on set with Frank Sinatra and Vincent Price, acted alongside Mae West, danced with Stella Adler. Most notably, he acted as a (uncredited) second assistant director on the iconic epic Ben-Hur.
In The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur, Alarimo’s cousin Joe Forte, now a filmmaker himself, interviews Alarimo about his time in Hollywood. Surprisingly, this interview does not begin with stories of California, but with stories of World War II. It is an interesting way to set up Alarimo as a character in his own words. He describes being a soldier in war as being nothing more than an expendable game piece, yet he seems discomforted by the sentiment himself.
Alarimo’s house is littered with knick-knacks and souvenirs from his time in Hollywood, labeled for people to find once he has passed. He lives alone, no spouse or children, but he holds on to everything as artifacts of his life for those who care to uncover them. He likes being a recluse, but as soon as he reaches out to the public, as the scene where he visits the doctor’s office, there is an almost desperate need to be with others.
The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur is a mere 54 minutes in length, but it is packed full of primary source insight into Alarimo: photographs, audio tapes, and the interview itself all providing a contextual atmosphere. What is surprising, however, is that it takes 20 minutes before Alarimo begins speaking on the eponymous film.
This is both good and bad. Setting up Alarimo’s character through talk of World War II and a doctor visit is helpful, providing a look into the man and not the name. But the movie does get hung up on little parts of his character and personality when the viewer is waiting to hear about Ben-Hur.
The story itself is a behind-the-curtain tale of a shoot in Italy. If anything, it is a plea to give Alarimo credit on the film that he deserved but never received because of industry politics of the time. It is also a tale that takes up mere minutes of screentime. The conversation from which the title is gleaned is not even depicted on camera, but in a short voiceover given by the director.
Despite the title of the film, it is not so much a look into Ben-Hur or the movie industry. It is a look into a man who pines for the glory days found therein. What results has emotional weight, a melancholic meditative tone. The flashiness of the industry is hard to find through the eyes of the spirited yet lonely subject. It paints Hollywood as an alienating place, even to those who brushed shoulders with stars and received Christmas cards from Rock Hudson. The perspective is fascinating given the standards for industry lore that gets spit out from the inside.
The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur may not be what it sounds like. It is more about the man than the saving of Ben-Hur. Going in without this misconception, the film provides something minor but rare: a look inside the honest mind of a Hollywood worker reminiscing. Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You” never felt so macabre and isolating.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)