Movies: Bang the Drum Slowly

Bang the Drum Slowly newspaper ad (Image / Paramount Pictures)

Bang the Drum slowly is the 1973 baseball movie, starring Robert DeNiro and Michael Moriarity, about the fictional New York Mammoths.

DeNiro portrays catcher Bruce Pearson, who battles Hodgkin’s Disease just as his lackluster baseball career begins to take a turn for the better. Teammate Henry Wiggen, a perennial all-star and Pearson’s sometime battery mate, is the far savvier of the two, both as a baseball man and general observer of life. In a symptom of his simplicity, Pearson, raised in the Georgian backwoods, refers to Wiggen as “Arthur,” a botched version of the nickname “Author” given to Henry for having written a book about his life and the club.

DeNiro is stellar as the slow-witted, tobacco-spitting Pearson, unsure of what to make of opposing pitchers and ultimately the unexpected curveball life has thrown him. The beauty of the plot is that Pearson is neither well-liked nor respected, and the disease merits sympathy not readily given. Most Mammoths suffer him both as a fool and second-rate catcher, and it’s only Wiggen’s reluctant better nature that compels him to support the largely friendless Pearson.

As it becomes clear that Pearson’s disease is serious, Wiggen is drawn into a friendship that would have never otherwise materialized. Wiggen’s efforts to spare the catcher unnecessary insult from his unknowing teammates earns him only their dislike, and sullies his reputation as one of the clubhouse’s sharper tacks.

The movies only notable flaw, and not a minor one, is the dated patina it’s acquired. The real game footage of the 1970’s Yankees, used to represent the Mammoths in action, ironically makes the film seem all the more fictional. While easy to accept 1930’s movie dialog as something other than what we speak today, it’s less easy to extend the same pass to films from the 1970’s, and at times it suffers for its awkwardness.

The movie is based on the 1956 Mark Harris novel of the same name.