Well, you know, if people think you’re gonna die, they’re gonna be nice to you and…
Now that we’re into September, the Major League Baseball season enters that phase of the year where it has to work a little harder to hold the interest of the voracious sports fans that populate the USA from coast to coast. They play a long, drawn out campaign that strains the attention spans of a culture used to more immediate forms of gratification. Fortunately for the game and its owners, the fall pennant races take on a more compelling tone, at least for those 10 or 11 markets where teams still have a chance to play on into October. However, for the rest of the country (and even for many who live in cities whose teams are destined to make the post-season), football is the main game of interest, with basketball and hockey due for a return in the not too distant future to keep the games rolling through the winter months and on into the following spring.
But there was a time when the equation was quite different, when baseball truly was America’s Pastime and served a function as one of the prime stages in which stories of everyday men could be told in ways that gave them the mythic quality that sticks in the imagination. Bang The Drum Slowly is a relic of that era, finding its first success as a best-selling book before being adapted as a live-action teleplay and, nearly two decades later, a feature length film that helped Robert De Niro break into bigger roles. Being a pretty loyal and interested baseball fan, I’ve known the basic storyline of Bang The Drum Slowly for a number of years, without even seeing any of the different versions: Bruce, a strong but dumb third-string catcher for a fictional baseball team (the New York Mammoths) discovers that he’s the victim of a terminal illness that will probably kill him within the next year, maybe even much sooner. Other than confiding this devastating information to his best pal, Henry “Author” Wiggen, a star pitcher on the team, he keeps his diagnosis a secret, afraid that he’d be cut immediately and left without any support. This puts Author in the position of having to protect his friend, answering to a higher code of honor than the usual manly competition and boisterous ribbing that goes on between ball players usually demands.
Learning what I had (from what source, I can’t recall), I’d never made it a special priority to seek out the book or movie, figuring that it was more or less an imitation of Pride of the Yankees or a forerunner of Brian’s Song, both of which had the advantage of being based on factual stories involving two of the greatest athletes of their respective sports, Lou Gehrig and Gayle Sayers. I didn’t sense a special need to delve into fictionalized melodrama when the real thing found in those stories was plenty enough compelling for me. But now that my Criterion-blogging task requires it of me, I have a better sense of just for whom it is that we’ve been asked to Bang The Drum Slowly.
As another episode of The Golden Age of Television, Criterion’s three-disc box set of performances originally broadcast live as one-time-only events, the reason for its inclusion is perfectly obvious. The lead character, pitcher Wiggen, is played by Paul Newman, who was an unknown actor at the time but went on to become one of Hollywood’s most iconic and beloved leading men over the next five decades. Newman’s career accomplishments hardly need be recounted here. But his performance in Bang The Drum Slowly, covering an impressive range of moods under incredibly time-restricted, no-second-chance conditions, ranks right up there as a prime example of what made Newman stand out among his peers. The script called for him to serve as both a narrator and as a pivotal figure in a series of vignettes that stretch over the course of a baseball season. Over the course of the story, Wiggen transforms from a self-centered prima donna, easily irritated by Bruce’s naive, thick-skulled simplicity to a humble and chastised role model for fair play and looking out for the little guy. Newman had to carry an enormous load to tie diverse elements together, and he does a terrific job juggling the choreography (having to rely on dimmed stage lights and shifting sets to move from “scenery” to “neutral narrator’s space”) while at times having to do his costume changes in real time, right on camera. Just doing the mental calculations of how the stage director and camera crew handled their technical side of the job, without any chance of a retake, with the only built-in time for a breather provided by a few advertising breaks over the course of an hour, provides plenty to keep one fascinated and entertained for a second or third viewing. To enhance the appeal, toss in some interesting supporting characters, including the TV debut of George Peppard (from the original A-Team and many other films) who sings “The Streets of Laredo,” the mournful “dying cowboy” ballad from whence the story’s title takes its name. As a production, it left me nothing short of impressed. But as a story, I have to admit, there were some elements I struggled with.
My main problem with the story, at least how it comes across in what must have been a truncated form in its TV adaptation, is just the seeming implausibility of its central conflict. A bench-warmer suffering from a degenerative disease at the major league level is not going to have the same extended grace period, or any residual benefit of the doubt to ward off critical scrutiny by the coaching staff. I can grant that the game was different back then – trainers and physical conditioning and medical exams were all less specialized and technically developed than what we find in professional sports operations these days. But I had a hard time believing that a diagnosis could be so pessimistic and yet nothing occurred to draw further attention to Bruce’s plight. Likewise, the contract negotiations between upper management and Wiggen, who stages a holdout based at first upon money, then later upon his insistence that Bruce be guaranteed a spot on the roster, seriously strained my credulity. Maybe I just have a hard time thinking that a star athlete would be that altruistic, or that he’d ever even consider trying to use his leverage in that way, or that such details would be hammered out on the spur of the moment over 5-cent bottles of Coca-Cola between the team owner and the player himself (no hints of any agents to be found), sealed by a handshake and a word of honor. I mean, it would be nice if the world worked that way, and maybe I really have no grasp of how straightforwardly business was conducted back in the good ol’ 1950s… but I had a hard time getting past these central pivots of the narrative.
On top of that are just the anachronisms of hammy acting, corny slang and what seemed at times to be blatant emotional manipulation, all fairly common to mainstream American entertainment of that era. Maybe in a different frame of mind I would have found those characteristics more entertaining and less distracting. I suppose it’s not too sporting of me to begrudge the playwright and producers their chance to pull at the nation’s heart-strings a bit – baseball is a game, after all, that has always lent itself to being mythologized and magnified beyond the significance of what actually happens on the field. Given the physical limitations of an flat-staged enclosed studio space, what the creators of Bang The Drum Slowly were able to accomplish on a late September night in 1956 deserves better than the nitpicking I tossed at it just now. Certainly I’m grateful for the boost it gave to the career of Paul Newman, a man whom I’ve come to respect as much for his lifelong philanthropic and political efforts as his acting abilities. He made some pretty excellent salad dressing too – I had some at dinner tonight!
Here’s the final scene of Bang The Drum Slowly, so it’s a spoiler, if you haven’t seen the show. But it’s the only clip I could find on YouTube, and I think it shows off rather nicely Newman’s ability to reach through the tiny screen of an old cathode ray tube to touch something we can all probably relate to, one way or another.
David Blakeslee maintains a film blog, Criterion Reflections, where he’s been recording his chronological journey through the entire Criterion Collection since January 2009, and also writes a weekly column on the Eclipse Series (and other occasional articles) at CriterionCast.com. He lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan and works as a staff trainer in social services.