“Nothing is more important than friendship. Not fame, not money, not death.” Critic Roger Ebert once called Bang the Drum Slowly “the ultimate baseball movie.” Since I’m not much of a baseball fan, I’ll take his word for it. Based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Mark Harris (the title was taken from the famous cowboy ballad “Streets of Laredo”) and directed by John D. Hancock, the film features some outstanding performances in the story of two Major League Baseball teammates for the “New York Mammoths”—star pitcher “Henry Wiggin” (Michael Moriarty) and dull-witted, mediocre catcher “Bruce Pearson” (a then relatively unknown Robert De Niro)—who form an unlikely friendship after the latter is diagnosed with terminal cancer. When the other teammates find out about Bruce’s condition, they stop ragging him and start winning games. Also look for Vincent Gardenia as the crusty manager “Dutch” and Danny Aiello as “Horse.” Whenever I think about Bang the Drum Slowly, I remember the card game TEGWAR (“The Exciting Game Without Any Rules”), which the teammates play to scam other guests in hotel lobbies during road trips, and that extremely moving scene when a sickly, bewildered Bruce struggles to catch the pop fly.
Useless Trivia: Al Pacino was slated to star in Bang the Drum Slowly but Francis Ford Coppola managed to get him released from his contract so he could play “Michael Corleone” in The Godfather (1972) by “trading” him for De Niro, who was originally cast as “Paulie Gatto.” De Niro in turn would portray the young “Vito Corleone” in The Godfather: Part II (1974). Bang the Drum Slowly is reportedly Pacino’s all-time favorite film.