Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty in Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)


(director: John D. Hancock; screenwriter: from the novel by Mark Harris/Mark Harris; cinematographer: Richard Shore; editor: Richard Marks; music: Stephen Lawrence; cast: Michael Moriarty (Henry ‘Author’ Wiggen), Robert De Niro (Bruce Pearson), Vincent Gardenia (Dutch Schnell), Phil Foster (Joe Jaros, coach), Ann Wedgeworth (Katie), Heather MacRae (Holly Wiggen), Selma Diamond (Tootsie, Hotel switchboard operator), Barbara Babcock (Team Owner), Maurice Rosenfield (Team Owner), Tom Ligon (Piney Woods), Andy Jarrell (Ugly), Marshall Efron (Bradley), Tom Signorelli (Goose Williams), Danny Burks (Perry), James Donahue (Canada), Danny Aiello (Horse); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Lois Rosenfield/Maurice Rosenfield; Paramount Pictures; 1973)

“It was first filmed for television, where it seems best suited as a ‘disease of the week’ movie.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John D. Hancock (“A Piece of Eden”/”Prancer”/”Let’s Scare Jessica to Death”) helms an overrated, dreary and contrived tear-jerker melodrama set against the world of baseball. It’s scripted by Mark Harris from his 1955 novel. It was first filmed for television, where it seems best suited as a ‘disease of the week’ movie. The TV version starred Paul Newman and Albert Salmi. The title comes from the cowboy song “The Streets of Laredo,” as the banging drums signal the death watch for the Robert De Niro baseball character dying of an incurable disease (he learns of his disease in the first scene at the Mayo clinic, and the film follows his story through spring training and the regular season).

The plot has a not-too-bright Georgia country bumpkin named Bruce Pearson (Robert De Niro) as a not-too-good journeyman big-league catcher who has come down with Hodgkin’s disease and is expected to die shortly. Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) is the team’s star pitcher, who at first becomes the only one to know of his batterymate’s fatal illness and takes him under his wing and prevents him from being sent down to the minors by stipulating that in his contract. Though the more worldly-wise Henry does not like Bruce at first, the disease changes everything. Dutch Schnell (Vincent Gardenia) is the grumpy, tough-but-fair, manager of the fictional New York Mammoths, who tries to figure out what the hell is going on with this odd arrangement between the battery-mates. Gardenia has the film’s best line: “Never mind the facts, just give me the details.” When their Mammoth teammates find out the secret, they come to side with Bruce and surprisingly even his playing gets better. The happy side of the ending shows the team winning the pennant, but it sadly ends with Bruce dying.

Whatever charm it has in the early innings, providing a comical baseball background story, soon fades and wears out its welcome during the late innings when everyone acts sitcom nice in the face of tragedy. Its good intentions of showing the positives of male bonding and the best of humanitarian aims give way to a gooey sentimentality, which on my scorecard fails to register as genuine good will.

Comedian Phil Foster brightens things up as a colorful first-base coach with a knack for getting into card games with rules he makes up on the spot.

You don’t have to be a baseball fan to understand or like this baseball drama, but you will probably like it better if you are a fan of such schmaltz as Love Story or fell for the real-life teary-eyed tale of a football player dying of cancer in Brian’s Song.