Back when Hallmark sponsored the making of really good films for television, these were special events, James Garner was talked into making several of them, one of which is the superior Decoration Day.
These were not sudsy, bright-eye, greeting card type films. Mostly, these were in-depth dramas that stirred the heart and stirred your emotions. Decoration Day is one of the best films from the Hallmark Hall of Fame Collection.
Garner, who won a Golden Globe for this role, plays Judge Albert Sidney Johnston Finch, a retired circuit judge, who has withdrawn from life after the death of his wife. Anything that disrupts his life is an irritation, even family and friends needing his help.
The film begins when Finch becomes drawn into his godson Billy Wendell’s troubled marriage, and then is asked by his godson to help intervene is a problem involving their old friend, Gaspard Penniwell (Gee), who is being force by the Department of Defense to accept the Medal of Honor, which Gee wants no part of. Wendell had tried to get the DOD to back off, but that resulted in a government lawyer pushing back.
There is a complicated backstory between Finch, Gee and Wendell’s father, from when they grew up together, and the resulting split between Finch and Gee. Gee is now an elderly man living near Finch, but they have not spoken in years. The story takes place in the deep South, and Gee (wonderfully played by Bill Cobbs) being an African-American, provides several complications to the story and the relationships.
Finch agrees to help out, even though he gets a cold shoulder from Gee, who also bares some complicated feelings toward Finch. As a retired judge, Finch still has some privileges at the courthouse, where he sets up a temporary office in preparing a motion to stop the DOD from harassing his client, Gee. This effort results in the DOD sending a brash and enthusiastic young lawyer (Laurence Fisburne) to prevent a further injustice being done to Mr. Penniwell.
Judge Finch enlists the help of legal secretary Terry Novis (Judith Ivey) at the courthouse, who couldn’t be more pleased to render aid. Terry has long held the judge in high esteem and the two get to work on the case. His interaction with Terry, also interrupts Finch’s self-imposed exile from his feelings, and her warm manner quickly melts the permafrost around his heart. Later, it is learned that it is her that is the wedge between Wendell and his wife, for very mistaken reasons. More on that later.
Finch begins to investigate the incident that led to the Medal of Honor. On the surface, Gee firmly believes that after he fought off a bunch of German soldiers, that he was wounded by American soldiers and denied medical attention if he complained about his attackers. Gee would prefer to be left alone, this stirs his already hardened views of racial prejudice, and it scrapes the wound of his relationship with Finch, who was like a younger brother to him in their youth.
Finch also begins to understand his godson, who he seemed both disappointed and irritated with, particularly over his marriage. Finch learns that Wendell is not straying from his wife, he is seeking cancer treatment and support from a cancer survivor, Terry Novis. Finch begins to see the mounting misunderstandings and the unfortunate results they cause.
In looking at Gee’s service in Europe, Finch discovers that German S.S. units sometimes impersonated American soldiers, infiltrating their camps and causing disruption. He presents this information to Gee, who had never considered the possibility that Germans shot him, not racist American soldiers.
The film is based on a book by John William Corrington, who was a practicing lawyer in New Orleans but who left the law and began writing for television and film. Corrington’s story sets in motion several relationships in conflict, mostly based on misunderstanding, innuendo and the ravishes of time.
Finch makes peace with the DOD lawyer and Gee agrees to accept the Medal but without a lot of fanfare. The lawyer also discovers that Finch was wounded in the War but never received his Purple Heart. Terry Novis, in telling Finch about her cancer, and that her and Billy Wendell are just friends, decides she needs some time away to think about things. It is very apparent that Finch is drawn to her and very much wants to be in her life.
Finch and Gee finally have a talk about the past and Finch confesses his past inability to reach out to Gee, and stubbornly allowing time to erode their relationship. Finch hugs Gee, to show that he really loves the man.
Finch visits Terry’s house but it is apparent that she is gone on her retreat. He places his Purple Heart Medal in her mailbox with a note.
Later on, Finch is at his house, in the backyard, when Terry Novis appears, proudly wearing his medal. Finch is clearly glad to see her. In looking at her with the loving eyes of a young man, barely being able to contain what he feels for her, he says:
“I don’t know how long I can stand this.”
She replies: “Well, Mister, we’re going to find out.” And they walk to his house together.
The character in the film I haven’t mentioned is Finch’s housekeeper, Rowena (Ruby Dee), who has watched over Finch for many years, and kept him on track after his wife died. Their scenes together show that there is great caring between them, but they’ve never come right out and said it. In fact, at the end of the film, Finch apologizes for never saying “thank you” for all she’s done for him. She touches his face and says sure he has, he just doesn’t remember. That sums up the quiet, reserved nature of the characters in the film, so much never said.
The filmmakers quietly and effectively weave stories together into a sensitive and believable film. Decoration Day is that rare film that tells a moving and compelling story with many emotional themes, but that resists sinking into a schmaltzy tear-jerker.