[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
What the reviewers have said about Bang the Drum Slowly avoiding the overwrought sentimentalism of a Brian’s Song or a Love Story is only partly true. But the film does offer honest schmaltz as a viable alternative to the tasteless kitsch of previous films about dying young. The story concerns a major-league catcher, Bruce Pearson (Robert DeNiro), who is dying of Hodgkin’s Disease, and the efforts of his roommate, pitcher-author Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), to look after Pearson’s best interests during what they both feel will be the catcher’s last season. Both the film and the novel on which it is based are purported to be not about baseball, but rather about friendship, the baseball setting being incidental. As far as I can tell, this contention was created for the blurbs, in order not to lose the audience of people who don’t know or don’t like baseball. The novel in fact may not be about baseball, but it most certainly is about a baseball team. The meat of Harris’s novel is the behavior of a given group of baseball players and the way in which that behavior is altered, in individuals and in the team as a whole, by the knowledge that one of their number is dying. This is where the film version goes awry. In trying too hard not to be “about baseball,” it plays down the supporting characters, the ballplayers themselves, to the point where the whole impact of the novel is lost. The team concept which is central to the novel is give mere lip service in some voiceover narration from the pages of the book. The tension about the outcome of the season, which underlies every word of the novel, is nonexistent in the film. Instead we have the well-acted interplay among the pitcher, the catcher, a coach, the manager, and a whore who attempts to swindle the catcher out of his insurance money. All of this was present in the novel, of course; but it supported the larger theme of the behavior of human beings as they watch someone die, and the effect the experience has on their own, unthreatened lives.
One cannot condemn the movie for not being the book; but in this case the movie fails as film where the novel succeeded as fiction. Harris wrote the screenplay, too, to be sure: but he also wrote recently in The New York Times that he had tremendous reservations about both Hancock’s direction and the editing of the film. The problem could have been solved simply by giving more screen time to the actual ballplayers themselves, and their ruthless “ragging” of Pearson and Wiggen, which is sharply contrasted to the teammates’ later treatment of the dying catcher and his friend. Sentimentality is usually avoided; but when it is indulged it is quite embarrassing, as with the irritating switches to slow-motion which fail to capture in image the truly touching “frozen moments” of Harris’s prose. Many things about the film work extraordinarily well, however. Vincent Gardenia’s performance as the colorful manager is one of this year’s most sparkling acting achievements. And the first third of the film re-creates quite well the atmosphere of the early chapters of the novel, in which one frequently forgets that Pearson is dying, only to be reminded by a sudden, painful word, phrase, or glance. Perhaps the moment in which the film is most memorable, and truest in spirit—though not in letter—to Harris’s novel, is the one point at which the slow-motion nearly works: the final seconds of the last ballgame Pearson will ever play, though no one quite realizes it. Weakened by the disease, he dances slowly in a fog of uncertainty, circling, searching the sky for a foul ball which has already been caught, as his teammates sweep victoriously off the field, and Wiggen, as if in afterthought, comes back to accompany his dazed friend to the dugout for the last time.
BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY
Direction: John Hancock. Screenplay: Mark Harris, after his novel. Cinematography: Richard Shore. Editing: Richard Marks. Music: Stephen Lawrence.
The Players: Robert DeNiro, Michael Moriarty, Vincent Gardenia, Phil Foster.
Copyright © 1973 Robert C. Cumbow