Two baseball players, the uncomplicated Bruce (Robert De Niro) and the more worldy-wise Author (Michael Moriarty) have been best friends since becoming teammates, but now something threatens to break up their companionship. Just before the new season Bruce receives the terrible news that he is suffering from a terminal illness, and there is no hope of recovery. The two men drive to Bruce's family home to visit his parents, who are pleased to see him, but despite fishing and playing cards according to Author's "No rules" ways, the approaching tragedy hangs heavily over them. The new season begins and they both decide to keep the illness a secret from the rest of the team and the team's coach, Dutch (Vincent Gardenia), but can they sustain their secrecy?
Bang the Drum Slowly was scripted by Mark Harris from his novel, and gained a reputation, in North America at any rate, as the movie that real men, manly men, could watch while feeling no embarrassment about getting a lump in their throat or a tear in their eye. Although set against the world of baseball, as Bruce and Author compete for a fictional New York team, you don't necessarily have to be a fan to appreciate the story, because it doesn't rely on the sport's rules for its narrative. However, in spite of the film's influence on a number of people, it may not have the desired effect on you, as it looks from some angles to be a phoney tearjerker that uses the conventions familiar to those who have seen too many TV movies, never mind watched Margaret Sullavan in No Sad Songs for Me or Ali MacGraw in Love Story.
That is, the film tries hard to generate an atmosphere of gritty realism, but ends up feeling horribly contrived. This was one of the big first roles for De Niro (and for Moriarty too, but he never enjoyed the same level of recognition), and he puts on a folksy interpretation for his character that quickly grates. He appears condescending to be portraying this none-too-bright fellow, and punctuates the role with uncomprehending smiling and frequent tobacco chewing, which helps with with seeming uncultured when he spits out the juice. Moriarty is little better as the man who looks after him, coming across as aloof and irritatingly smug as if wishing to display what a big heart he has rather than the man who cares enough to want the best for his friend.
Author tries to keep the secret for the whole season, leading to far too many scenes of him spinning tales to Dutch to cover up the truth - Gardenia offers the one worthwhile performance, although even his tough-but-fair lines grow tiresome. Meanwhile, you'd bever know Bruce had anything wrong with him anyway, having one of those movie terminal illnesses that leave you remarkably healthy and living until you have, say, proved yourself an expert ball player against the odds of dying soon. Gradually the bad news gets around thanks to Author blabbing to a minor character, and they all make sure Bruce's last season is easy for him, while choking back the emotion and pretending to carry on as usual. Eveything here is affected, verging on the patronising, and any good intentions about impending death bringing out the best in people are drowned in manipulative sentiment. Maybe you have to love baseball to be a real fan of Bang the Drum Slowly after all. Music by Stephen Lawrence.
Born in Kansas City, Hancock worked as a theatre director throughout the 60s before receiving an Oscar nomination in 1970 for his short film Sticky My Fingers... Fleet My Feet. His feature debut, Let's Scare Jessica To Death, was an effective slice of horror, while subsequent films, such as Bang the Drum Slowly (featuring a young Robert De Niro) and Weeds were sensitively made dramas.