For this Replay Review, we look at the movie “Bang the Drum Slowly.”
1973’s Bang the Drum Slowly, directed by John D. Hancock, has all the hallmarks of a soppy sports melodrama, and often draws comparisons to Brian’s Song, but manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of that genre of the film… though perhaps at the expense of storytelling.
The baseball drama, one of the legendary Robert De Niro’s earlier efforts, introduces star pitcher, Henry Wiggen (nicknamed “Author” due to his cerebral nature and the fact he’s written a book) and his teammate and catcher, the simpleminded Bruce Pearson. Pearson has trouble connecting with his teammates, and Wiggen is his only friend.
The film opens with the teammates at the Mayo Clinic where they receive Pearson’s terminal Hodgkin’s diagnosis and follows the pair to Georgia, where they visit with Pearson’s family and the catcher burns his baseball memorabilia in acknowledgment of his cancer diagnosis. When they arrive for Spring Training, it becomes apparent that management—who know nothing of Pearson’s health—is looking to replace him with a hotshot prospect.
Wiggen, who is in the midst of a contract dispute, refuses to end his holdout unless Pearson is kept on as his personal catcher, much to the bewilderment of his fellow players and team officials. The movie follows Wiggen and Pearson as they navigate both the season and Pearson’s illness together.
While the premise seems to promise a certain type of film–either an overwrought melodrama or an inexplicably heartwarming feel-good movie–the movie manages to avoid falling into either category. While this works, for the most part, with the film remaining focused on baseball, and male bonding, friendship, and camaraderie, it sends a somewhat uneven message. At the outset, Pearson doesn’t have any friends on his New York Mammoths team (a stand-in for the Yankees, right down to the interlocking N and Y on their uniforms) besides Wiggen; he’s also an unremarkable player on the verge of being released.
The team’s indifferent attitude toward Pearson doesn’t change until the truth of his terminal cancer diagnosis leaks out; suddenly everyone feels bad for having teased and/or ignored him previously, and they welcome him into the “inner circle.” Pearson gets invited to the players’ raucous hotel room after-parties, he gets invited along to television appearances, and he gets regular playing time as Wiggen’s personal catcher.
The team comes together and starts playing well, after stumbling for much of the season, and they naturally reach the postseason. The Mammoths use Pearson’s illness as a bonding experience and achieve success, winning the World Series (that Pearson is unfortunately not around to see, as he’s become too ill to play and passes away offscreen). The camaraderie and bonding are over, at least for poor Bruce Pearson.
What really saves this movie is the quality of acting from the leads. Michael Moriarty is likable and charming as the cerebral pitcher, Henry Wiggen; his intellectual Wiggen contrasts nicely with Robert De Niro’s intellectually challenged Pearson. And De Niro shines in an early, forgotten role as the hapless catcher. De Niro attended spring training games to study for the role, and even recorded player interviews so he could nail a Georgia accent. Vincent Gardenia, who portrayed the team’s manager, Dutch Schnell, nabbed an Academy Award nomination for the role.
The movie also wisely avoids those big dramatic moments that have become woven into the fabric of the sports melodrama; rather, the movie relies on smaller character moments to illuminate their lives, their hopes, and dreams, successes, and failures. A fictional card game is used to illustrate the players’ acceptance of Pearson; Wiggen and his teammates use the game “tegwar” to sucker people out of their money, but Pearson is considered too slow to play along. As the players start to accept Pearson, he gets invited to participate in the game more and more.
Bang the Drum Slowly wisely focuses on the characters and the smaller moments, presenting a charming if mildly flawed tale about friendship and sports. While Pearson’s death is unavoidable, the movie doesn’t wallow in the tragedy and injustice of it. It chooses to make a point of showing Pearson living his life and enjoying and making the most of the time he has left.