Friday, March 12, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973)

It's possible that "Bang the Drum Slowly" was made because of the success of the 1971 TV movie "Brian's Song," in that they're both about the brotherly bond between two professional athletes, one of whom is dying.

But I don't think so.

For starters, "Bang," which came out in 1973, was actually based on a book by Mark Harris (who also provided the screenplay) written nearly two decades earlier. Paul Newman even starred in a 1956 television version.

It's sad but uplifting, more about the bond between men than the game of baseball -- even though the film is consistently ranked as one of the best sports movies of all time.

Nobody'd heard of Robert De Niro when this came out; "Mean Streets" would hit theaters two months later and make him a name, and next year's role in "The Godfather Part II" would earn him an Academy Award and cement his place as one of his generation's greatest actors.

Interestingly, for the first decade or so De Niro was known for his brutal characters quick to violence. In "Bang," he plays a sweet, naive guy who's so slow on the uptake, he might have been classmates with Forrest Gump.

Director John D. Hancock -- not to be confused with John Lee Hancock, who made the excellent baseball movie "The Rookie," and the Oscar-nominated "The Blind Side" -- opens right away with Bruce Pearson (De Niro) leaving the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease. He knows he's dying, but he and star pitcher Henry Wiggin (Michael Moriarty) resolve not to tell anyone.

The reason for their secretiveness is never overtly revealed, but it's suggested that Pearson doesn't want to be pitied. He can accept the "shit deal" he's been dealt, and he even accepts the ragging of his teammates for being a dummy. But he can't stand being looked down upon.

Henry -- whom everyone calls "Author" because he's published a book about his baseball exploits -- is holding out for a new contract with the New York Mammoths. As spring training draws to a close he suddenly lowers his asking price, with one proviso: That he and Bruce be tied together in any personnel moves. If he's traded or his contract bought out or sold, then so will Author. This also means the team can't send Pearson -- a catcher of nominal abilities -- down to the minors without sending Author, too.

Dutch (Vincent Gardenia), the crusty manager, is appalled at the demand, but gives in to keep his star player. He doesn't give up his determination to get to the bottom of the mystery, though. Throughout the season he needles Author and Bruce with questions about their winter excursions, even hiring a detective at one point to find out what they were doing in Minnesota.

Eventually their secret gets out. Author tells one of the older players to get him to lay off teasing Bruce. That player tells his roomie (a young Danny Aiello), and eventually the whole team knows.

The movie's pivotal scene takes place in the locker room. At this point, about half the players know about Bruce's diagnosis, and the other half doesn't. Piney Woods, a colorful catcher who was sent down to the minors to make roster space for Bruce, has been brought back (unknowingly) as his replacement. He strums his guitar and plays "The Streets of Laredo," a mournful song about a cowboy shot down in his prime.

Author and those in the know urge Piney to play another song, calling it cornball. But they just don't want their dying friend to have to listen to a mournful ballad about death. Piney plays on, as the cowboy is carried to the hills to be laid to rest.
"Oh, bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
And play the dead march as you carry me along;
Take me to the valley, and lay the sod o'er me,
For I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong."
Arlo Guthrie, one of many to record the tune, called it the saddest song he's ever heard.

Strangely, the sadness over Bruce's condition galvanizes the team and the start to play better. They stop their squabbling, finding something to focus on besides their own inner rancor. Even Bruce gets into the starting rotation and plays the best ball of his life, though even Author -- who narrates the movie -- wouldn't exaggerate him into a great ballplayer.

Eventually Bruce's illness gets the better of him and he's forced to the leave the team, which goes on to win the World Series without him. Nobody from the team except Author bothers to show up at his funeral, and even he admits he stiffed his friend's request to send him his Series scorecard. He resolves to never rag on anyone for the rest of his life.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" is a lovely meditation on male relationships, and how our competitive natures --exemplified through sports -- compel us to shun intimacy and vulnerability with other men. Only when we can find sympathy for another do we earn a touch of grace, and truly win.

3.5 stars

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