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Film / Bang the Drum Slowly

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Joe: Sad. Makes you want to cry.
Aleck: Sad. Makes you want to laugh.

Bang the Drum Slowly is a 1973 American melodrama film directed by John Hancock, adapted by writer Mark Harris from his own 1956 novel of the same name and starring Robert De Niro, Michael Moriarty, and Vincent Gardenia.

The story revolves around a pair of baseball players with the fictional New York Mammoths: dim, folksy catcher Bruce Pearson (De Niro) and snarky pitcher Henry Wiggen (Moriarty). Bruce reveals privately to Henry that he has incurable Hodgkin's Disease and probably won't last the year. Henry promises to help Bruce, since the disease is sapping his ability to play, and to keep his illness a secret from their teammates and manager Dutch Schnell (Gardenia, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his role).

This wasn't the first screen version of Harris' novel; the year it was published (1956), it was adapted for television as an episode of The U.S. Steel Hour starring Paul Newman as Henry, with Albert Salmi as Bruce and a young George Peppard appearing as the ballplayer who sings "Streets of Laredo".

The film is regarded by many as a Spiritual Successor to the similarly-themed Brian's Song, although the Harris novel and teleplay predated the latter by nearly two decades.

Tropes present in this work include:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Henry's teammates call him "Author" because he wrote a book. Bruce misheard it and calls Henry "Arthur".
  • Bland-Name Product: The fictional Mammoths wear uniforms identical to those of the New York Yankees, while the other teams they play wear the uniforms of the New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies. They all apparently play in the same fictional league, since in '73, there's no way the Yankees would be playing the Mets, Pirates or Phillies (outside of the World Series, anyway). The film thanks all of those real MLB clubs at the end, so they did have the option of using the real Yankees name, but the film remained faithful to the book.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The original 1956 television adaptation had Newman address the camera directly when he narrated.
  • Character Depth: The book and film hit all three dimensions. The entire story is about how Henry deals with Bruce's ailment; the fact that the Mammoths are gunning for the pennant is almost incidental.
  • Character Development: Henry grows up as a person as the narrative moves along, and famously resolves to never be a Troll to anyone again. The last line was even voted the 95th best last line in a novel by American Book Review.
    Henry: I was his pallbearer — me and some local boys. There were flowers from the club, but no person from the club. They could've sent somebody. He wasn't a bad fella, no worse than most, and probably better than some — and not a bad ballplayer neither, when they gave him a chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in, I rag nobody.
  • Character Narrator : As with the entire Henry Wiggens tetrology, the film is entirely from Henry's perspective and his narration. He's not omniscient, so he has no idea what the other characters are thinking.
  • Famed In-Story: Henry has already won a Cy Young Award and a championship when the story begins.
  • First-Person Perspective: The book has the readers viewing the events through Henry's head.
  • Hope Spot: Near the end, it looks like Bruce is recovering and will play the next season. Instead, he dies offscreen and the next scene is Henry walking away from Bruce's funeral.
  • Lonely Funeral: No one from the team save Henry went to Bruce's funeral.
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: After Bruce dies, Henry regrets not sending him the program of the World Series, which Bruce asked him to do when leaving the team for the hospital. He had plenty of time to send it, but for some reason never got around to it.
    Henry: We breezed through the playoffs and wrapped up the Series on a Sunday - my win. I took the scorecard home and threw it on the shelf and left it lay there. It would have been simple to shove it in the mail. How long would it have took? Couldn't I afford the stamps?
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Bruce and Henry become this, though initially Henry is ambivalent towards Bruce, but helps because Bruce is not very smart but in emotional and physical pain. When Bruce starts to play worse, Henry flat out tells Dutch that no matter where Bruce is sent or traded to, he must go with him; this causes Dutch to briefly wonder if the two are lovers.invoked
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: In one of the most touching scenes, one of Bruce's teammates sings the 19th century ballad "Streets of Laredo", which is about a dying cowboy. Bruce reacts quietly.
  • Rousing Speech: Dutch gives one prior to having to face their chief opponent Baltimore Orioles, mixed with We ARE Struggling Together.
  • Secretly Dying: The entire plot revolves around Henry hiding Bruce's Hodgkin's Disease from everyone else, because Bruce doesn't want to be treated differently.
    Bruce: Everybody'd be nice to you if they knew you were dying.
    Henry: Everybody knows everybody is dying; that's why people are as good as they are.
  • Setting Update: The book took place in The '50s, the film sets it in The '70s.
  • Title Drop: From the lyrics of the folk song "Streets of Laredo":
    Then beat the drum slowly, play the Fife lowly
    Play the dead march as you carry me along
    Take me to the green valley, lay the sod o'er me
    I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong
  • Too Dumb to Fool: Or rather, Bruce is "too dumb to play a joke on." This prevents him from being part of tegwar, a card game with ever-changing rules which the ballplayers use to scam money from passersby.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Bruce's Hodgkin's is terminal. It's just a matter of how long.

"From here on in, I rag nobody."