Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

Directed by John D. Hancock

Bang the Drum Slowly is a film on this marathon list that is one of the more highly anticipated films of those I have not seen before. It has always been one of those movies just on the fringes of my watchlist. I have heard of it, and heard good things about it. Being a baseball movie and featuring Robert De Niro are strong elements for me to consider, but for whatever reason it just always stayed at arm’s length on my watchlist. On the radar, but never passionate enough about it to watch it, with something new, or something old always seemingly skipping it in line. I am truly glad I was finally about to catch up with it however, as it surprised me quite a bit. It was not quite what I was expecting it to be, but that was a good thing.

The story, which was apparently also adapted previously as a television play featuring Paul Newman (may have to check that out some time too), is about Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), who is a star pitcher on the New York Mammoths (let’s be honest, they’re the Yankees). Coming off another good year, he is holding out during spring camp for a better contract. As part of the negotiations, he requests a curious clause in his contract: that his movements be tied with those of catcher Bruce Pearson (De Niro). Pitchers and catchers often form close bonds, but the one between Pearson and Wiggen runs deeper than their chemistry on the field, they are friends. In the offseason, Wiggen accompanied Pearson to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where Bruce was given some not so savory news: he was going to die. A simpleton from Georgia, Bruce never asks for sympathy, and Wiggen is always looking out for his friend, protecting his secret.

What sets Bang the Drum Slowly apart from a host of other baseball movies is the fact that it isn’t about baseball. For as involved as the baseball process is in the film, it’s always the backdrop, it only happens to be the occupation of our characters. First and foremost it is a story about a friendship and comradery and the film’s ability to avoid the baseball clichés of a great season, a team coming together to win the pennant (which the Mammoths happen to do) is what makes it great. It treats its characters delicately and personally, giving them real traits and putting them in real life situations. What we see is a locker room of men playing a child’s game and learning to respect one another, and have dignity. The movie putters along at a leisurely pace, but jumped up to surprise me with its impact, when all was said and done. The film closes as casually as it opens, telling us that this is not a film about a man who is dying, but rather one who is living.

***1/2 – Great

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