Program Notes: Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

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The dying jock movie is an infrequently-visited subgenre of the sports film universe. It’s easy enough to see why.

Sports are about health, vigor, winning. Dying isn’t a comfortable fit, particularly since the male audience for sports films gets squeamish when confronted with the big emotions evoked by fatal diseases.

But there are exceptions. For example, Gary Cooper’s turn as the dying Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees (1942). Or the made-for-TV bromance Brian’s Song (1971), in which former Jayhawk Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) holds the hand of dying teammate Brian Piccolo (James Caan).

And in 1973 we got Bang the Drum Slowly with a young Robert DeNiro playing a professional baseball catcher living out his final Major League season under the cloud of Hodgkin’s Disease.

Film Screening:
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
Saturday, June 16 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

What makes Drum so remarkable is that despite its glum premise, it’s a very funny movie that, ultimately, is less about death than about the world of baseball: locker room horseplay, card games, outsized personalities.

Adapted by Mark Harris from his novel and directed by Kansas City-born John D. Hancock (who had a sleeper horror hit a couple of years earlier with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death), the film opens with catcher Bruce Pearson (DeNiro) leaving the Mayo Clinic, just having gotten the terrible diagnosis.

He’s accompanied by one of his teammates, ace pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), and the contrast between the two could hardly be more pronounced.

Moriarty’s Henry is bright, erudite (he’s written a best-selling book), and wise to the ways of the world.

DeNiro’s Bruce is a tobacco-chewing Georgia cracker. He’s not just uncouth. He’s dumb. Moreover, Bruce isn’t a very good catcher. It’s pretty obvious that the management of the (fictional) New York Mammoths wants to dump him.

But Henry, ever the faithful friend, demands that his new contract include a clause that he and Bruce are a package deal. If one goes, both go.

Henry’s motives? Simple decency.

The sophisticated Henry has little in common with the country-bred Bruce. But since management saw fit to make them roommates, he now feels responsible. Henry knows that baseball is all this poor klutz has going for him, and so he determined to keep Bruce’s illness a secret.

Through the deft application of psychological principles and by setting a good example, Henry is able to tone down the merciless ribbing Bruce usually endures at the hands of other players.


Michael Moriarty

Big chunks of Bang the Drum Slowly play out with no reference to Bruce’s disease. In fact the film’s running highlight is the mental and verbal sparring between the glib Henry and the team’s nosy manager, Dutch Schnell (Vincent Gardenia), who is determined to figure out why two such unlikely players are joined at the hip.

Are Bruce and Henry an item? Are they skirt-chasing partners on the road?

Dutch is driven to apoplectic eruptions by the mystery, which Henry complicates at every opportunity.

Gardenia has a field day with Dutch’s Yogi Berra-ish dialogue.

In one memorable scene, Dutch goes ballistic when he discovers that one of his players is packing a loaded pistol. To the kid’s protests that he’s always careful, Dutch retorts:

“That’s what everybody says. That’s why the hospital’s full of babies.”

Much attention is paid in Harris’s script to a card game called Tegwar that, we’re led to believe, is all the rage among Major League players. In fact, it’s a made-up game with no rules but with tons of arcane terminology like “natural banjo,” “Coney Island tatey,” and “butchered hog” devised to suck in and separate from their money baseball fans thrilled to be playing with their sports idols.

Gently, calmly, and without much fanfare, Bang the Drum Slowly twists the screws on its audience’s emotions when the other players realize Bruce is dying. The entire team makes a pact to keep the secret and to not let Bruce know that they know... and they start treating him with respect.

Bruce is pleased with his improved status, but cautious.

“Everybody’d be nice to you if they knew you were dying,” the suspicious catcher says to Henry.

“Everybody knows everybody is dying,” is the response. “That’s why people are as good as they are.”

Miracle of miracles, Bruce’s on-field play improves even as his health declines. He makes a significant contribution to the Mammoths’ success in the league playoffs.

After 40 years of big performances, we tend to think of DeNiro as a star. But here he’s superb in what is essentially a limited character role. Later in the same year he would make a huge splash as the psychotic Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. There was no looking back after that.

The real star here is Moriarty, who would go on to numerous movie roles (including the filmed-in-Kansas City Shoot It Black, Shoot It Blue in 1974) and as the lead prosecutor in the first four seasons of TV’s Law & Order.

Moriarty is quietly spectacular as a guy who does an extraordinarily decent thing without ever letting on that he’s doing anything at all extraordinary. Now that’s inspirational.

Other films in the series “Hollywood Homers”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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