Sensitive drama explores racial prejudice in Vietnam era

The tensions between conscience and commitment -- a subject too seldom confronted on commercial television -- are at the core of a tortuous but gratifying drama coming up this weekend on the ``Hallmark Hall of Fame.'' Resting Place (CBS, Sunday, 9-11 p.m.) takes us back a decade-and-a-half to the waning years of the Vietnam War and the early days of civil rights legis-lation. The parents of a black officer are determined to bury their son, a war hero, in an all-white cemetery in Georgia.

Helping with the arrangements is Major Kendall Laird a ``survivor assistance officer,'' portrayed with exquisitely vulnerable toughness by John Lithgow. Major Laird uncovers mysterious circumstances with racial overtones surrounding the battlefield death of the young soldier.

The battlefield and burial stories become intertwined through a complex but sensitive script by Walter Halsey Davis, directed skillfully and unobtrusively by John Korty, under the aegis of executive producer Marian Rees. (Her name, by the way, is fast becoming synonymous with quality television drama. She was responsible for the recent award-winning ``Love is Never Silent.'')

Today the discriminatory clauses in cemetery arrangements could be resolved through court action, so such plot twists must be viewed as part of a period piece rather than a contemporary drama. But many of the racial attitudes depicted here unfortunately remain.

The assumption by white soldiers that a black officer would lack the skills necessary to lead them in highly technical areas turns out to cause fatal problems.

In the course of this moving drama, some important questions are raised: Is grief a valid excuse for not doing ``the right thing?'' How can we determine whether we are actually helping friends or merely using them to make a point?

The most powerful moment in the drama, reminiscent of the famous walk to the water fountain in ``The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman'' (also directed by Mr. Korty), is a march to the grave site by the dead soldier's companions. It provides a bravura, tear-inducing, if slightly predictible, 60 seconds.

Major Laird arrives at one of the most profound revelations of this thought-provoking drama: Having found something to believe in, a man of good conscience cannot back away from it, despite the consequences.

Perhaps ``Resting Place'' is overburdened by the interconnected story lines, which give one the feeling of seeing two separate programs welded together. But in sorting out some of the thorny issues of racial prejudice, this drama offers engrossing entertainment and important observations about human beings of all colors.

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