AT ITS START, "Decoration Day" looks like a pretty sparse spread, able to raise little more than a cloud of dust as it shuffles along, hat in hand, with the same self-deprecating sort of approach often used by its star, James Garner, as he takes on a role.
Eventually, though, this Hallmark Hall of Fame production for NBC, which will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) Sunday night at 9 o'clock, adds layer upon layer of topsoil, becoming a fertile field for a moving drama about redemption from the sin of retreating from life.
Garner gets to play the role he knows best and does so well, that of the reluctant hero. He is Judge Albert Sidney Finch, a widower prematurely retired from the federal bench at age 58 so that he can spend the rest of his days doing little more than matching wits with the bass in his family pond and with Rowena, the longtime housekeeper who presides over the family homestead.
But one day in the mid-1970s, a far-from-favorite pseudo-nephew named Billy Wendell arrives with the news that Finch's boyhood friend, Gee Pennington, is in some sort of mix-up with the government over a Medal of Honor he was due to receive for heroism in World War II but didn't want.
With one of Garner's patented I-didn't-ask-for-this looks, Finch cranks up his Jeep and drives into town to try to straighten the mess up. And while there he decides to poke into the rumors of Billy's involvement with a courthouse secretary named Terry Novis, an affair that has left Billy's wife, Loreen, dazed and confused back at the Wendell farm with their two kids.
Like a tobacco plant, "Decoration Day" unveils the many leaves of its tale slowly, until it finally stands as a magnificent specimen rising from the red clay of Georgia where this movie was made.
The details of the plot are not all that important. Suffice it to say that it takes Judge Finch back to his boyhood when he and Billy's father were taken under the wing of Gee, a black teen-ager five years their senior, and taught the ways of the woods, the subtle differences between a boy and a man.
Ironically, one of those differences in the South in those days -- indeed until very recently -- was that a white boy could be friends with a black boy on an equal basis, but a white man could not have such a relationship with a black man.
World War II came along, Billy's Dad came back in a box, Gee came back with a bum knee and things were never quite the same again.
Eventually you learn that all the central characters -- Finch, Gee, Billy, Terry -- have suffered some sort of wound that has caused them to turn their backs on a world that sits there begging for their attention, like a retriever with a stick in its mouth wagging its tail next to a pond on a hot day.
Rowena and Loreen are the women who recognize these mistakes but can't bring the men they know too well to do anything about them until they see the the flaws in themselves. By accident, the events of "Decoration Day" give each of the members of this wounded quartet a second chance, an opportunity for redemption, to amend mistakes made days or decades before.
One of the joys of this movie is watching the battle of curmudgeons as an acknowledged master of the genre, Garner, more than meets his match in Ruby Dee's Rowena and Bill Cobbs' Gee. The scenes with Garner and Dee and Cobbs are the best of the film. You just wish there were more of them.
Indeed, "Decoration Day" is to be commended for recognizing the complexities of a relationship usually depicted simplistically, that between whites and blacks in the South, though this portrayal can be faulted for a bit of romanticism as it ignores the deep wounds inflicted by paternalism.
Judith Ivey maintains her reputation as an actress of depth and richness with her performance as Terry, but Jo Anderson and Norm Skaggs are uneven as Billy and Loreen.
"Decoration Day" does take its time getting going as it has way too much backstory to tell in its first 20 minutes or so. But, over the years those who have stuck with James Garner in a television appearance have rarely been disappointed. And they won't be Sunday night.
*** A judge reluctantly comes out of retirement to help an old boyhood friend who wants to refuse a Medal of Honor, offered 30 years after World War II, apparently because racial prejudice caused the delay.
CAST: James Garner, Bill Cobbs, Ruby Dee, Judith Ivey
TIME: Sunday at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: NBC Channel 2 (WMAR)