A classic tearjerker? Not so much. "Bang the Drum Slowly" is a remake of a '50s television production, and is presumably inferior to the original. Michael Moriarty gives his usual distant, blank-faced performance as a star major-league pitcher who, for no apparent reason, is best friends forever with his hick catcher who's dying of Hodgkin's Disease (Robert Deniro). Seeing the young Deniro is the best reason to watch, but his character fails to generate much affection and is saddled with a revolting wad of chewing tobacco from beginning to end. Awkwardly, the pair's team is a "fictional" franchise that wears Yankee uniforms but is called the Mammoths instead. Vincent Gardenia is typically strong as the manager, and Barbara Babcock is an interesting casting choice as the Mammoths owner (she played a different role in the '50s version). But the broad characterization of the second-string catcher (a gun-toting, singing cowboy whose rendition of "Streets of Laredo" supplies the movie's title) is ridiculous. The drippy musical score is another problem. The early '70s was full of these manipulative "disease of the week" films (blame "Love Story"), but "Brian's Song" is the only one that has aged well.
In 1973, two films were released that featured two very different performances from a young Robert DeNiro. One was his first collaboration with director Martin Scorsese in "Mean Streets" and the other was "Bang The Drum Slowly". However, despite the critical plaudits DeNiro received for the former, it's was arguably this film that caught everyone's eye beforehand. Either way, they both marked the arrival of, what would be, one of cinema's finest performers. Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) is the star pitcher of a New York professional Baseball team. He's the type of player that can name his price when it comes to contractual negotiations. On hearing the news that his friend (and surplus-to-requirements) teammate Bruce Pearson (Robert DeNiro) is terminally ill, Henry negotiates a contract that will keep Bruce in team and save him from being transferred. Henry's intention is to give Bruce a memorable last season at the club. On first appearances, this film comes off as a cheap TV movie with a music score that isn't far from something as cheesy as "Little House on the Prairie". Quite simply, the music is dreadful but the performances manage to transcend it's dated approach. It's interesting watching a young DeNiro before the heights of stardom and it's easy to see that he's always had the acting ability. There's an innocence and lack of self-confidence to his character and he plays it wonderfully. This, however, adds to another problem in the film; his talents are not utilised as well as they could be. It's Moriarty that takes the lead and although he also delivers a solid performance, he comes across a little expressionless at times. Despite both actors playing well, the close relationship between their characters is never explained and leaves it hard to fully connect with them or accept the events that take place. That being said, the film does still have a heart and a lightness of touch which help it overcome it's faults. It's not a story about a dying man but more a story about life and living it fully. It's a story about integrity and the camaraderie and teamwork amongst men. It's also somewhat of a sports film but that becomes secondary to the human relationships. With material of this nature, the film could easily fall prey to cliche but it manages to avoid the pitfalls which is thanks to it's sensitivity and assured handling by director John Hancock. It's an enjoyable film but left me feeling a little frustrated at DeNiro being so underused. I know he wasn't a star at this time but when he's as good as he is here, you just want to see more. What it does do though, is show that he's always had a magnetic screen presence. A touching and poignant drama that also manages to be an understated sports film. Not many films manage to achieve this balance and despite some flaws and it's now dated appearance, this is still worthy of attention: if only, to witness the early stages of a very illustrious career.
Bang the Drum Slowly is a touching melodrama that explores the inner workings of a baseball club and its players' personalities with remarkable depth.
You can see it being played rather harmlessly in the film Bang The Drum Slowly. Meanwhile Mark Harris, the author of Bang The Drum Slowly, seems to hold TEGWAR as a central metaphor for Life itself!