Unlike the movie Tobacco Road (1941), which is as unfaithful to the 1932 novel by Erskine Caldwell as it is pointless, God’s Little Acre (1958) is a pretty good rendition of that author’s 1933 novel, although it varies significantly from the novel at several points.
The novel is pretty raunchy, which is why efforts were made to censor it. Naturally, that made it a best seller. And as there are a lot of people for whom sex is mesmerizing, it does not surprise me that for them, the sexual themes of this novel are all that come to mind when someone refers to it. The movie cleans up the sex, although it was still regarded as unsuitable for minors when first released. On the other hand, there were those concerned about the subplot of workers taking over a factory, especially since this country was still obsessed with communism at the time. But the title directs us to the most essential idea of this novel, to the way people regularly adjust their moral and religious views so that they can do whatever they want.
As we watch the opening credits, we see a creek with a bridge crossing over it. Then the camera pans to the right, and we see a farm. Where crops should be growing, we see barren land that is pock marked by large holes. In one of those holes, about ten feet deep, we see shovels rising up and tossing out dirt, as Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan) and his two sons, Shaw (Vic Morrow) and Buck (Jack Lord), proceed to dig deeper. Then part of the hole collapses, undoing much of their labor.
Shaw says they should start a new hole, since they’ve been digging this one for two months. Ty Ty tells him and Buck that they don’t have his patience, that he’s been digging these holes for fifteen years, and he intends to dig another fifteen, if that’s what it takes. Buck says that they don’t need patience. What they need is a diviner. Ty Ty dismisses that as superstition, priding himself as being scientific about it all.
Pluto Swint (Buddy Hackett) stops by to tell the Walden family that he is running for sheriff. When he asks what they are digging for, Ty Ty tells him that they are looking for gold coins and other fabricated forms of gold. He says that “grandpa” told him that there was buried gold somewhere on the farm, and that he willed it to Ty Ty just before he died.
Pluto says that his grandfather might have been mistaken. “Are you makin’ my dead grandpa out to be a liar?” Ty Ty asks, furious with indignation. One way to win an argument is to make it personal, turning any disagreement into an insult.
Pluto deflects from this, saying that what Ty Ty needs is a diviner. Not just any diviner, but an albino. They have a special power to see right through the ground. Ty Ty becomes convinced, allowing that with an albino to do the divining, it would be scientific.
As they prepare to go catch the albino that lives in the swamp, Pluto makes the offhand remark that the albino might find the gold anywhere, even over in that field, he says, pointing to a section of the farm with nothing growing on it but a bunch of weeds. In the middle of that field is a cross.
Ty Ty gets a worried look on his face. He starts pulling the cross out of the ground. Pluto doesn’t understand, thinking that the cross marks the spot where Ty Ty’s grandpa was buried. But Ty Ty explains to him that the cross is there to mark God’s little acre. The day he got married, twenty-seven years earlier, he promised that land to God. Anything that comes from that land, cotton, corn, and the like, goes to the church. Of course, nothing comes from the land because it has been completely neglected. In fact, that is why it is the one part of the farm where no holes have been dug.
If the albino points to that part of the farm as being where the gold is, Ty Ty would have to give all that gold to a preacher. Worse yet, he might keep the gold for himself, which would be sinful. He moves the cross to the corner of his house, marking the new God’s little acre. He takes a knee and asks God to forgive him. But he is sure it will be all right because he knows God wouldn’t want him to give in to temptation.
While we watch this scene with complete cynicism, it would be a mistake imagine that Ty Ty is likewise being cynical in moving the cross. He was sincere when he first dedicated part of his farm to God on the day of his marriage, and he is just as sincere in his belief that God approves of his moving God’s little acre beyond the reach of temptation.
Ty Ty and Uncle Felix (Rex Ingram) set out to capture the albino. Uncle Felix is one of the sharecroppers, the only ones producing any income on that farm so that Ty Ty can keep digging holes. They capture the albino, Dave Dawson (Michael Landon), hogtie him, and bring him back to the farm. Dave says he doesn’t know anything about divining for gold, but after being threatened by Ty Ty and Uncle Felix, he takes hold of the willow fork. Suddenly, it seems to come alive, almost as if it is pulling Dave to go here and there.
Of course, there is no surprise about what happens next. Dave starts heading straight for the corner of the house where the cross is, indicating the new God’s little acre. Ty Ty makes him stop, pulls up the cross, and then lets Dave continue. Right where the cross had been stuck in the ground, the willow fork points straight down, supposedly indicating where all the gold has been buried for a hundred years. Ty Ty is so excited about finding the gold, he says, “Praise the Lord.”
Uncle Felix says, “Amen.” And then, realizing that the house sits right in the middle of God’s little acre, he says, “Maybe, Mr Ty Ty, you’ll stop diggin’ and start farmin’!” No point in digging for gold if God is just going to get it all.
Ignoring that remark, Shaw starts digging furiously. Buck tries to stop him, saying that the gold belongs to God because this is now God’s little acre.
“I can’t honestly say it is,” Ty Ty says, who apparently had an epiphany. “The minute before Dave found the gold, something come over me. And I decided to change the location of God’s little acre. Just about in time, I reckon.” Griselda, who is married to Buck, asks him where God’s little acre is now. Ty Ty says that the Lord hasn’t told him yet.
Ty Ty takes the cross to the creek near the bridge, the same spot we were looking at during the opening credits. Ty Ty sticks the cross into the ground right at the water’s edge, marking the third God’s little acre. He reverently speaks to the Lord, saying, “Now, God, I don’t aim to cheat you none, but with this unseasonable weather and all, you won’t mind to have your acre in a cooler spot. If you don’t like this, if you don’t approve of what I’m doing, Lord, then strike me down dead right here where I stand!” God gives Ty Ty the sign of his approval by not striking him dead. “Thank you, Lord,” he says. “Glory be. Amen.” That being out of the way, Ty Ty and his two sons start digging under the corner of the house, which has to be propped up so it won’t collapse.
Interspersed with all this digging for gold is a lot of hot, steamy sex. Pluto is obsessed with Darlin’ Jill, one of Ty Ty’s daughters, who teases him. She says she won’t marry him because he has a big belly. But without the big belly, she says, he could never get elected sheriff. And if he can’t get elected sheriff, she won’t want to have anything to do with him. But after driving him crazy with that talk, she has sex with Dave because he’s an albino. His divining rod pointed right to the spot.
And then there is Will Thompson (Aldo Ray), who is madly in love with Griselda. He is a union leader, determined to turn the power back on in the cotton mill, shut down by the owners rather than meet the demand of the workers that their pay not be cut. When he breaks into the mill, Griselda has sex with him in hopes of making him forget about turning on the power, so he won’t get into trouble. This temporarily distracts him, but when they start to leave the mill, Will sees half the town outside the fence, waiting for him to turn on the power. It’s too late to back down now. But as he turns on the power, the security guard wakes up. The guard is an old man, afraid of losing his job if he doesn’t do something, and he ends up shooting Will and killing him.
After the funeral, Buck, who knew all along that Griselda and Will had a thing for each other, is now furious with his suspicion that they had sex that night at the mill. Just as Ty Ty is managing to calm things down with a little homespun philosophy about love and understanding, which is what God wants, another of his sons, Jim Leslie, a rich cotton broker, invites Griselda to come live with him right in front of Buck. He and Buck start fighting, Ty Ty accidentally gets hit in the head, but gets back up just in time to keep Buck from pitchforking Jim Leslie.
Maybe that blow to the head knocked some sense into Ty Ty, because he tells God he’s going to go back to being a farmer. “God,” he says, “give me the strength to spread out my arms to the end of my fields. Let me fill up the holes and make the land smooth. You spared my sons. I’ll never dig another hole again, except to plant seeds for things to grow.”
Time passes, and in the final scene, Pluto arrives at Ty Ty’s house, all decked out in a sheriff’s outfit, greeted by Darlin’ Jill, who has agreed to marry him. All the holes have been filled back up. Ty Ty, Uncle Felix, Shaw, and Buck have hitched up the mules and are plowing the land. Buck and Griselda appear to have reconciled.
But then Ty Ty’s plow hits something. He pulls it out of the ground. It is the head of an old shovel. Ty Ty becomes convinced that this is the shovel that was used to bury the gold a hundred years ago. He immediately stops plowing and uses that shovel to start digging. Slowly, the camera pans to the left, returning us to the same shot of the creek as in the opening scene, where we see the cross sticking out of the water, not ten yards from where Ty Ty is digging.
Now, you don’t need me to supply you with examples of people that take a position in the figurative sense, believing it with all their heart, and then change that position it when it becomes inconvenient, much in the way Ty Ty changed the position of the cross in the literal sense when that became inconvenient for him.
My personal favorite is that of a friend of mine who, back in the 1970s, asserted that abortion was wrong because a fertilized egg was a human being, and therefore killing it was murder. Like Ty Ty, she said she was being scientific, because the fertilized egg has a complete set of genes. Thirty years later, for reasons we need not go into here, her daughter and son-in-law availed themselves of the services of a fertility clinic. They removed several of her eggs, fertilized them with her husband’s sperm, and grew embryos in vitro. One of them was selected and implanted in her uterus. The rest of the embryos were frozen. She had a healthy baby as a result. A couple of years later, she instructed the fertility clinic that she had no more need of the remaining embryos, and they were destroyed.
I asked my friend if her daughter and the people in the fertility clinic were guilty of murdering those snowflake babies. With complete sincerity, she said that her daughter was not guilty of murder because the embryos had not been implanted in her uterus, so they did not count as human beings. In other words, she pulled a Ty Ty.
But not all such adjustments in position are a bad thing. Just as God’s little acre could be moved as the situation warranted it, so too could the Promised Land be moved. Perhaps we could buy the Israelis a portion of Texas, call it New Israel, and move the Jews presently living in Israel to this new location. The Arabs could keep the land no longer occupied by the Jews and call it Palestine. All the fighting over that piece of land would come to an end. And what we would save in no longer having to give Israel billions in defense would more than pay for the cost of buying that piece of Texas many times over. Moreover, we could then get out of the Middle East altogether, saving billions more.
Dear Lord, if you disagree with me about moving the Promised Land to Texas, then strike me dead as I write this.
Thank you, Lord. Glory be. Amen.