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Overall Rating

Awesome: 12.9%
Worth A Look74.19%
Average: 6.45%
Pretty Bad: 3.23%
Total Crap: 3.23%

3 reviews, 13 user ratings

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Bang the Drum Slowly
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by Chris Parry

"Guys cry too, you know... but only about baseball."
4 stars

It's a funny thing. Bang The Drum Slowly is considered one of the great baseball movies of all time, not because it was a particularly riveting sample of the way the game is played, and not because it delves into baseball history and splashes folklore across the screen, but rather because it's a great story with great characters who just happen to be baseball players. If they were plumbers I doubt most guys would care, but put a struggling Joe Palooka baseball player in a life and death struggle and suddenly the menfolk are busting out the handkerchiefs en masse. Of course, it doesn't hurt that a young Robert DeNiro is in the middle of proceedings.

Bruce Pearson (De Niro) is a bum; a smalltown journeyman catcher for a mythical baseball team, the New York Mammoths. He's never amounted to much, despite the promise of his early years, but his friendship with big time pitcher and educated city boy Henry 'Arthur' Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) has seen him through the hard times, even as the rest of his teammates were ragging on him for being as dumb as a shoe.

And that's why Wiggen is the only person that knows Bruce's secret - that he's dying of Hodgkins' Disease. What follows is a season spent trying to hide Bruce's sickness, as Wiggen manipulates his contract negotiations to ensure that Pearson isn't dropped to the minors, and teammates and coaches try to figure out what the hell is going on between 'Romeo and Juliet' that makes this odd couple such good pals.

"Skip the facts, just gimme the details. "

Film in the 70's was a completely different enterprise than it is today, and so too was baseball. Watching players scrapping with management for a raise from $60,000 a year to $120,000 a year in Bang the Drum Slowly seems almost laughable in comparison to today's inflated free agent economy, while the players themselves have also taken a turn for the bigger as today's behemoths look like they could pass for superheroes compared to the stringbean slaphitters and belly-filling nut scratchers of the golden age. And that's a big part of why this admittedly technically deficient baseball time capsule has such a profound place in the hearts of ball fans. The canary yellow uniforms of the Athletics, the hotel lobby card sharks and games of "TegWar", the humungous chunks of chewing tobacco bursting out of mouths and the ensuing splat of tobacco juice that rings out around the dugout. These are the things we remembered as children, back when players would sign their baseball card for a kid hanging over the left field wall, and when a home run was a rarity, not something that could be predicted as long as the ballpark was new, the pitcher was young and the hitter was juiced.
The game used to be different back then. Not pure - not by any stretch - but only impure to the point that those watching it were. The players were drinkers, philanderers, and even cheats, instead of junkies, rich kids and ego-driven drama queens. The coaches were career baseball men, out of place in anything but a ballpark, and more concerned with winning than whose contract was up for renewal or whether the shortstop will show up for BP.

The exact same thing could be said for the movies. The 70's were different times, when stories could be told without a marketing department getting involved. A kid with nothing to his name could write a script and get a meeting, and maybe be the next big thing. And those that made it all work, they cared more about telling a story than whether anyone would turn up to see it.

What a shame that Major League Baseball would only let the makes of this film use footage of real teams, and not the names and players of the real teams, in the film itself. It would have been fantastic to actually see guys like Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente infused into this story, but sometimes you have to just take what you're given.

Those who have read Jim Bouton's classic baseball tome Ball Four may see some parallels between Bouton, the college boy who liked to keep a diary between innings on what his knucklehead buddies were getting up to during a season, and the character of Wiggen, who seems to be smarter than just about everyone around him and doesn't care whether he gets rich or not playing ball. This just adds to the flavor, and Michael Moriarty's performance as Wiggen takes it a step further still.

Technical issues run rampant over the final product, however, as poor acting from secondary characters breaks the mood from time to time, so too does the continual use of stock footage tend to stomp on the reality of the piece. Not helping things are a bunch of melodramatic lines that would have been best left on the cutting room floor:

Pearson: "Everybody would be nice to you if they knew you were dying."
Wiggen: "Everybody knows everybody is dying; that's why people are as good as they are. "

But in the long run, Bang The Drum Slowly is poor filmmaking wrapped up in great storytelling, terrific old history, and top notch acting, and the film only gets better as the years roll by. It's not so much a baseball film as a buddy film - a story about how people are basically hopeless, but it's quite okay to succumb to that hopelessness as long as you have people around you who give a damn.

And on that level, it's a must-see for anyone, be they a fan of the grand old American pastime, or simply someone who likes being told a real classic human tale.

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originally posted: 06/06/04 11:39:29
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User Comments

4/18/18 Anne wanted so much to like it; poor character dev't, wished more de[tj, baseball scenes are goo 1 stars
7/14/13 mr.mike I found it unwatchable. Moriarty is awful in it. 2 stars
10/25/08 BOB MINNERLY As a result ot watching it, "I don't rag anyone no more!" 5 stars
5/08/06 Thomas Semesky Slow at times, but an interesting look at early De Niro. 3 stars
10/23/04 UMER movie that put deniro in limelight even before GODFATHER happened 4 stars
5/24/04 Peter a touching account of true friendship 4 stars
2/23/03 Bruce Saw it as a kid on the big screen 30 years ago, much better second time around. 4 stars
7/07/02 Sally Otton One of my favorite movies of all time!!! 4 stars
3/07/02 Law Firm of Dewey, Cheatam & Howe Doesn't go for the cheap sentiment you might have expected 5 stars
2/19/02 Barry Solid movie; a must see for fans of Moriarty, DeNiro or even baseball 5 stars
1/28/02 Jonathan Patterson Wish it was available on PAL 4 stars
2/19/01 Phil M. Afficianado The best baseball movie of all time. Largely undiscovered. Watch in the spring. 5 stars
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  02-May-1973 (PG)



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