Bang the Drum Slowly
In its general outline, the story seems to bear a strong resemblance to one of the best of those dying-young TV films, Brian's Song (1971), the true story of the extraordinary friendship between the football players Gale Sayers and cancer victim Brian Piccolo. As a result, an audience might be forgiven for thinking this was yet another variation on the fatal theme but those who gave Bang the Drum Slowly a chance, found not only a touching and honest story but also what is often considered one of the finest of all movies about baseball. It was also well received commercially and critically.
It would also be wrong to assume this was an attempt to copy the success of Brian's Song. In fact, it began as a 1956 novel by Mark Harris, one of a series built around the star pitcher Henry Wiggen (sensitively played here by Michael Moriarty), published 14 years before Piccolo's death. It was first adapted for the small screen on the U.S. Steel Hour starring Paul Newman as Wiggen and Albert Salmi as Bruce Pearson, the Georgia boy played in the big screen version by the then relatively unknown Robert De Niro.
The 1973 film was a major boost for De Niro, who was known only to the relatively few people who had seen some of his independent pictures, particularly those by not-yet-famous director Brain De Palma, Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), and as one of the twisted sons of real-life Depression-era criminal Ma Barker in Roger Corman's Bloody Mama (1970). The same year he made Bang the Drum Slowly, De Niro entered into his first collaboration with director Martin Scorsese, and with the critical and cult success of their Mean Streets (1973) and the good notices he got for the hit baseball drama, the young actor was well on his way to the status he holds to this day as one of cinema's top performers.
Bang the Drum Slowly can also be seen as the beginning of De Niro's legendary dedication to creation of character and the lengths he will go to achieve depth and authenticity. According to the actor, his approach to roles is to start with the outside, the way a character looks and acts. To that end, he went to Georgia and spent time in the kind of small town in which Pearson would have been raised. His first step was to buy clothes from a country store that the character would wear, then to start developing the way he would talk. "The people in the town were really nice, and they didn't mind me copying the way they talked," he explained. "In fact, they would correct me if I started to sound too much like a New Yorker. After a while I began to move like Bruce and I began to feel like him."
A couple of other key aspects of the role, however, were not so easy to pick up. Never much of an athlete, it was a struggle for De Niro to get through the "spring-training" required of him, Moriarty and the rest of the cast, which included a full two hours a day of practice before shooting began. The other was learning to chew tobacco. According to director John Hancock, the habit, long identified with ball players, made the actor sick as a dog, but typically he stuck to it until he was able to give a very convincing account of the character. His fine work earned him the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor. In addition to good reviews for Moriarty, Vincent Gardenia was also highly praised for his work as the gruff team manager and earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
The title of Harris's story, which he adapted himself for the screen, was inspired by lines from the hit song "The Streets of Laredo" about a dying cowboy: "Oh beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly, and play the dead march as you carry me along..."
Director: John Hancock
Producers: Maurice and Lois Rosenfield
Screenplay: Mark Harris, based on his novel
Cinematography: Richard Shore
Editing: Richard Marks
Production Design: Robert Gundlach
Original Music: Stephen Lawrence
Cast: Michael Moriarty (Henry Wiggen), Robert De Niro (Bruce Pearson), Vincent Gardenia (Dutch Schnell), Phil Foster (Joe Jaros), Ann Wedgeworth (Katie), Selma Diamond (Tootsie).
by Rob Nixon