In today’s big, grand, noisy cinematic climate – where mammoth-budgeted films based on comic books and various other forms of existing IP are pretty much the order of the day – truly humanist filmmakers are allowed less and less of a foothold. While smaller, character-based films still abound (be it on streaming services, or via the extraordinary work being seen in cinematic territories outside of America), their directors receive rare fanfare and celebration. In the halcyon days of the 1970s, however, it was a slightly more even playing field, with blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars not completely obliterating film in a more minor key. A director at his best in this era was John D. Hancock, whose ability to dig deep into the interior lives of his characters marks him as something truly special.
Born in 1939 to a musical family, John D. Hancock grew up between Chicago (where his father was a musician with The NBC Symphony Orchestra) and his family farm in Indiana, before embarking on a career in the theatre after graduating from Harvard. Hancock made his directorial debut at the tender age of just 22 with an Off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht’s Man Equals Man. The play was a great success, which saw Hancock move onto several equally popular, often against-the-grain productions, including a controversial take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hancock also worked with the legendary Tennessee Williams on several occasions, and was eventually appointed artistic director of the famed San Francisco Actor’s Workshop in 1965, before taking the same positon at The Pittsburgh Playhouse and The New Repertory Theatre in New York City.
Hancock moved into filmmaking in 1970 with the fifteen-minute short Sticky My Fingers…Fleet My Feet. The story of a group of touch football playing everymen faced with the reality of their ageing bodies when defeated by a youthful rival, the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film, and played both before Woody Allen’s Bananas in cinemas and on TV during the half-time break of a major American football game. A finely performed, richly characterised film, Sticky My Fingers…Fleet My Feet would form something of a template for Hancock’s future work.
The director’s debut feature film, however, stands as something of an anomaly on his resume. Originally devised as a horror-satire (the original script’s title was It Drinks Hippie Blood), Hancock eventually reworked and redrafted Lee Kalcheim’s screenplay into something far more unsettling and disturbing. “I made it eminently clear to the producers that I did not want to do a satire of a horror picture,” Hancock said of the retitled Let’s Scare Jessica To Death. “I wanted to do a movie that was legitimately terrifying.” Pulling together chilling influences including the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Henry James’ novella The Turn Of The Screw and Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Carmilla, Hancock created an hallucinatory, nightmarish film in which Zohra Lampert’s Jessica – just released from a mental institution – slowly questions her own sanity while staying in a remote farmhouse. Dismissed on release, the 1971 film is now a minor cult favourite.
Hancock’s next film, however, remains his most famous and oft-mentioned. 1973’s Bang The Drum Slowly is not only one of the best sports movies of the decade (a major feat considering that the 1970s also offered up The Bad News Bears and Brian’s Song), but also one of the most profoundly moving and emotionally affecting films, period. In one of his earliest performances, Robert De Niro is extraordinary as Bruce, the none-too-bright catcher whose terminal illness brings together the teammates – led by Michael Moriarty’s savvy pitcher – on his baseball over a difficult season. Bang The Drum Slowly is an unforgettable humanist drama that showcases Hancock’s sensitivity and intelligence as a director. “The fact of Bruce’s approaching death adds a poignancy to the season, but Bang The Drum Slowly doesn’t brood about death and it isn’t morbid,” said the late, great Roger Ebert, who also called it the ultimate baseball movie. “In its mixture of fatalism, roughness, tenderness, and bleak humour, indeed, it seems to know more about the ways we handle death than a movie like Love Story ever guessed.”
While not quite as emotionally impactful, Hancock’s 1976 follow-up effort, Baby Blue Marine, is a fascinating anti-war drama set in 1943, but redolent with the themes and ideas of its time. The late, great Jan-Michael Vincent plays a failed military recruit mistaken for a war hero in a small American town. Also dealing with issues of racism around a nearby Japanese internment camp, Baby Blue Marine is a fine film, nearly completely forgotten today. Equally under-remembered is Hancock’s next film, 1979’s California Dreaming. An of-its-era story of a young man who comes from Chicago to California and experiences the looser seaside lifestyle of his new home, the film boasts a fine leading performance from Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away), and serves as a perfect time capsule of mid-seventies West Coast America.
Hancock worked in television (on Hill Street Blues, The Twilight Zone and other series) and had a couple of unfortunate cinematic moments (he was fired from directing Jaws 2 after working on the film for eighteen months, and was then ironically tapped to replace director Michael Wadleigh when he was fired from the excellent Albert Finney-starring horror flick, Wolfen) before returning to the big screen with 1987’s Weeds, a terrific prison drama starring Nick Nolte as a convict who turns his life around by becoming a behind-bars playwright. Tough, profane and blackly funny, it’s a punchy treatise on incarceration and redemption. In a massive about face, Hancock’s next film was the warm and charming 1986 Christmas flick Prancer, in which a young girl nurses a sick reindeer back to health. Starring the excellent Sam Elliott, the film still makes for worthwhile holiday viewing.
From there, Hancock’s output has been erratic, with barely released features (the family-themed dramas Piece Of Eden and The Girls Of Summer, and the horror flick Suspended Animation) mixing in with telemovies (the romantic thriller Steal The Sky) and episodic TV (Cracker: Mind Over Murder). Still directing into his eighties, John D. Hancock’s brand of low key humanism might run against the grain of what’s happening cinematically today, but it’s the kind of filmmaking that remains essential and relevant despite the mood of the times.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.