Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Bang the Drum" is laced with laughs

Cleveland Press October 4, 1973

Where do you begin to describe a movie like "Bang the Drum Slowly?" It's funny and it's sad. It's about friendship and loyalty. It's about death and about life. It h a s sentiment without being sentimental.

There were moments When I cried, but the tears weren't during the sad moments but during the funny ones, it's that hilarious.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" is about a dying athlete, but it's not about dying but about living. The man is a catcher on a professional baseball team. Bruce Pearson (Robert De Niro) is a tobacco-chewing slob, a backwoods boy from Georgia. He's not good but he's not bad either. He's not very bright and he is the butt of the other players' jokes.

The only man who knows he is dying is his roommate on the road, pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty).

"You're driving along with a man who's been told he's dying," the soundtrack voice of Wiggen muses. "It was bad enough rooming with him when he was well.

Wiggen is everything Pearson is not. Wiggen is a winner. He's dapper, successful, intelligent, smooth, happily married and holding out for more money and likely to get it.

He keeps Pearson's secret, protects his job. His onetime casual indifference turns to a grudging concern as he tries to get others to afford Pearson some dignity.

Pearson is not fully aware of what his friend is doing but he responds. His playing gets better. The secret soon leaks out to other players one by one. As they treat Pearson better they become a better team, working together for the first time.

All of this makes the movie sound very downbeat. It isn't downbeat at all.

It is laced with humor and it never gives in to pathos.

As a counterpoint to the two friends there are such persons as manager Dutch Schnell (Vincent Gardenia) and coach Joe Jaros (Phil Foster).

Gardenia must be seen to be believed. His is the comic performance of this or any other year. His face carries an expression that implies incredulousness, disgust, disaster and an active ulcer all rolled together.

"Never mind the facts, just give me the details " he bellows. But even silently he is something to behold. Watch him as he advances on an umpire, his facial muscles quivering

Listen to him as he catalogs his catchers, all bad, and their attributes, all horrible. This was the bit that reduced me to tears.

The cast consists of mostly New York actors, not very familiar on screen and all of them very, very professional. The two leads are perfect and so is everyone else.

The picture has been directed by an unknown John Hancock, and every bit of his work is tightly disciplined. Scenes that could have dripped with pathos don't, instead are turned sharply away from sentiment with a touch of unexpected humor.

If the picture sounds as though it were inspired by "Brian's Song" with a passing nod to "Love Story" it should be noted that it is based on Mark Harris' still popular 1956 novel which in turn became a TV drama in the days of live television.

A n d the screenplay by Harris must be given a big share in the picture's success. His dialog is sharp, real and funny -- and somewhat saIty in the locker-room vernacular.

Between Harris and director Hancock they have handled a difficult subject and carried it off without resorting to cheap sentimentality, without straining for effect.