**/**** Image B- Sound C+
starring Robert De Niro, Michael Moriarty, Vincent Gardenia
screenplay by Mark Harris, based on his novel
directed by John Hancock
by Walter Chaw Almost fatally hamstrung by an appalling score by Stephen Lawrence, John D. Hancock's Bang the Drum Slowly is a character-driven adaptation of a Mick Harris's novel (Harris also wrote the screenplay) that evokes the odd twilit detachment of professional sports in general and baseball in particular with a tale made suddenly popular in 1973 by the success of Brian's Song. Its baseball scenes almost tertiary to the friendship between a pitcher and his catcher (and the catcher and his hooker girlfriend), the picture feels a little like Of Mice and Men (complete with Steinbeck's low American primitivism) in the doomed relationship between a blue-collar man and his retarded friend. The film is riddled with pitfalls from the start: the potential for maudlin excess, the trap of over-writing, and the allure of some sort of overriding message for humanity. And though Bang the Drum Slowly dances along the edge of those pitfalls for a good portion of its running time, ultimately it's just another one of those films better remembered than revisited.
Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) is a star pitcher for a New York team (the fictional NL "Mammoths,"a who happen to wear pinstripes and share a logo with the Yankees) who learns that dimwit catcher Bruce Pearson (De Niro) is dying of Hodgkin's Disease. With the only possible explanation for why Wiggen takes Bruce under his wing a line in the first half of the film (the Rousseau-ian "Everybody knows everybody's dying, that's why people's as good as they are"), Bang the Drum Slowly sees Wiggen negotiating a clause in his contract that piggy-backs Bruce for one last season in the big leagues while trying to keep his condition a secret from manager Dutch (Vincent Gardenia).
The main problem of the film is the desire for "large" moments motivated almost purely by that idea of basic goodness--something ill at ease in a film set in the early '70s (though doubtless current in the comparatively halcyon mid-'50s when the novel was written). As more teammates discover the truth about Bruce and rally around their stricken brother, the film becomes something of a struggle between maintaining empathy and ignoring the shoddiness of the picture's execution. The poorness of Hancock's camera work (so ordinary and repetitive that it begins to resemble the television shows of the same era--score and all) places Bang the Drum Slowly into movie-of-the-week territory, and lines like "So sad it'll make you want to cry, so sad it'll make you want to laugh" are so pathetic that they sort of make you want to do both. A shot during the final game sequence (De Niro spun himself madly in circles before each take to simulate his dementia) salvages a good deal of the middle portion of the film, but it does leave one wondering if the picture doesn't benefit more from some sort of belated "pay-off" rather than a completely effective establishment of situation.
Though the piece indisputably has some moments of realism and power, the tide of filmmaking in the Seventies was about to submarine this soft-focus Love Story sub-genre, something illustrated succinctly in the pair of Robert De Niro films sandwiching Bang the Drum Slowly: Mean Streets and The Godfather Part II. Bang the Drum Slowly is not so much timeless as out-of-time, then--a film that evokes nostalgia for being a relic rather than a classic.
Bang the Drum Slowly comes to DVD courtesy a 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer from Paramount that cleans up a majority of print defects but is ultimately limited by the grainy quality of the source negative--something due a little, probably, to the use of stock game footage and perhaps even a philosophy of "grittiness" informing the directorial approach. Whatever the case, the picture is drab, not to mention laden with edge-enhancement that is plentiful if not terribly distracting. The original mono track is preserved in the presentation's flat Dolby 2.0 audio. I didn't have any trouble, lamentably, hearing Lawrence's score. There are no special features of any kind on this disc save a scene-selection page and subtitles for the hearing impaired. Originally published: March 26, 2003.