Movie Review: "Bang the Drum Slowly"
by Matt Sandler
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) is more than a baseball movie; it is about mortality and friendship, and how when we face the former, the latter shows its true colors.
The film was written by Mark Harris, and is based on his novel of the same title. The main thrust of the story is revealed in the opening scene, as we see two men exit the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. These two men turn out to be pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) and catcher Bruce Pearson (Robert De Niro) of the fictional New York Mammoths. We hear right away in Wiggen’s voiceover that Henry has been diagnosed with terminal cancer (we later hear it is Hodgkin’s disease), and the film tells the story of their friendship over the course of one baseball season. They are roommates on the road, and Wiggen becomes especially protective of his best friend, as Pearson awaits certain death. Wiggen’s narration adds an extra layer of poignancy, because from what he tells us and the way he describes the events, we know that this story will not have a happy ending.
The two friends are very much opposites. Wiggen is nicknamed “Author” because he has just published a well-regarded baseball book, and the character is soft-spoken, articulate, and intelligent. Pearson, on the other hand, is very simple-minded and not too bright. He is a friendly and open man in a genuine way, but he does not know how to handle the new emotions that are brought on by his diagnosis. The movie reminded me of the relationship between George and Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. While Pearson is not as mentally handicapped as Lennie, he is naïve in the world and needs to be sheltered by his more worldly friend.Wiggen takes it upon himself to be the protector of Pearson, who is the fourth-string catcher on the team. Wiggen is a shrewd negotiator, and after Pearson is diagnosed, he has a special clause inserted into his contract that he and Pearson must stay together, regardless of demotions, trades, etc. This is a gutsy move by Pearson because he is a star pitcher that certainly does not have to share the same fate as a backup catcher. Wiggen also tries to stop the relationship of Pearson and Katie (Ann Wedgeworth), because he fears that Katie wants to marry Pearson only to collect on his life insurance. And there is the symbolic gesture that Pearson is Wiggen’s personal catcher.
The two friends have agreed that they are not going to discuss the diagnosis with anyone, and even on a visit to Pearson’s parents afterwards, nothing is said about the disease. Wiggen finally caves and tells a teammate, and of course once that happens, it is only a matter of time before word starts to spread. There is a touching scene where Pearson’s father approaches Wiggen in the clubhouse after he has heard about his son’s illness, and he begs Pearson to take care of his son. After the father departs, we see Pearson smashing furniture, furious that there is nothing he can do to save his friend. Along the way, we see many familiar baseball scenes, which carry an extra degree of sadness, as we realize that Pearson will be experiencing these simple moments for the last time. We see the card games during rain delays, the guitar-playing teammate, the unintentionally funny inspirational speeches by the manager (Oscar-nominated Vincent Gardenia), and the lifelong coach who cannot imagine doing anything different. (Someone asks him what he did before coaching, and he answers, “Before I was a coach, I was a baby.”)
Eventually, everyone hears of Pearson’s illness, and there is some awkwardness over how to behave. One teammate solemnly says, “Whatever Bruce says, I’ll do, because in my opinion, there’s no greater catcher in baseball today.” Pearson is invited to join a group on the club, The Singing Mammoths, which performs on TV shows. But other than Katie’s money-grubbing, all this behavior is portrayed as being performed with the best of intentions. If it is a cliché that the thought of death clarifies our thoughts and helps us put things in perspective, we here have that confirmed in a touching manner.
At the end, what happens in the movie is what must. (This isn’t called a "male weepie" for no reason.) Pearson’s play has started to decline, and he starts to feel especially ill, including during games. From then, it is only a matter of time before he heads to that big dugout in the sky.
Bang the Drum Slowly demonstrates how sports allow grown men to more easily bond with each other. At one point during the movie, I thought of my grandfather, who died the year before I was born, and after whom I am named. Whenever my mother mentions him, the subject of baseball always arises. She always says how much he would have enjoyed watching baseball with me, and how I would probably be a Yankee fan instead of a Met fan if he had survived until my birth. I like to think that in one of his last years on earth, he saw Bang the Drum Slowly, and cried his eyes out.
Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan" appears alternate Fridays