Bang The Drum Slowly (1973) is another entry in the cycle of films made in the first half of the seventies that analyzed and romanticized male friendships. Like Scarecrow (1973), Husbands (1970), The Last Detail (1973), or Mikey & Nicky (1976), Bang The Drum Slowly balances pathos with humor as the plot navigates different forms of masculine vulnerability. The clever and successful pitcher Henry (Michael Moriarty) takes also-ran catcher Pearson (Robert De Niro) under his wing when Pearson is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease.
Their relationship is articulated across the film as that of the protective elder brother and his naive kid brother. The script is not as well equipped as the two leads to lend dimension and emotional complexity to these characters and circumstance which often gives the film an uneven feeling. There are emotional moments of some profundity such as when De Niro asks Moriarty to hold him whimpering “I’m scared”. Then there are outright comical moments such as the televised musical review where a bewildered De Niro struggles with the blocking for the television cameras. The fact that the script is over reliant upon the voice-over of Moriarty’s character, these tonal shifts often feel abrasive and unearned.
What’s interesting about Bang The Drum Slowly is that America’s favorite pastime, baseball, is relegated to the background of the story, becoming a kind of secondary spectacle to human suffering. Baseball in the narrative complex of Bang The Drum Slowly is little more than a job that these men do and it is treated no differently than the work of Peter Falk’s construction crew in A Woman Under The Influence (1974). The way a man does his work and is treated at work is the yard stick by which his life is measured. It may seem an outdated view now, but at the time this value system was paramount to masculine identity so it becomes essential to the impact of the melodrama that the work (baseball) be un-romanticized.
Director John D. Hancock is sensitive to both performance and image but is perhaps too faithful to Mark Harris’ screenplay. Harris adapted his own novel and seems to have retained many literary qualities that just do not translate well to this kind of “realism”. The aforementioned voice-over and chapter-like pacing of the film keep Hancock from fully realizing the human nature inherent in this material. Bang The Drum Slowly should rank alongside Fat City (1972) as one of the great novel-to-screen adaptations of the seventies but fails.