Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Light In The Forest

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Light In The Forest

The films of Walt Disney are some of the most recognizable and familiar titles of the last century. The studio has done a commendable job keeping most of them in the public eye, so odds are good that you’ve seen quite a few of them. Even if you haven’t, Walt’s taste in source material ran toward popular classics like Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. You don’t need to have seen Davy Crockett to know what it’s about. But I have to admit I had no idea what to expect from The Light In The Forest.

The movie is based on a 1953 novel by Conrad Richter. If you’re anything like me, you don’t know who that is, either, even though he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He’s probably best known for his trilogy The Awakening Land. Those books were turned into an NBC mini-series in 1978 that I vaguely remember my grandmother watching at the time.  

Lawrence Edward Watkin, Walt’s go-to writer of historical adventures, wrote the screenplay. Watkin’s previous script, The Great Locomotive Chase, failed to find much excitement in a real-life Civil War incident. While The Light In The Forest is fiction, Richter did incorporate a number of real historical figures and events into his book, including Henry Bouquet, a colonel in the British Army who is today notorious for coming up with the idea to give Native Americans blankets infected with smallpox.

The movie doesn’t mention that incident and picks up some time later, with Colonel Bouquet (Stephen Bekassy) negotiating a peace treaty with the Delaware Indians. As part of the terms, the Delaware are required to hand over all their white captives. But these “captives” are mostly women and children who have been fully assimilated into the tribe. One of them, True Son (James MacArthur) has been raised by the Chief himself. True Son has no memory of his birth family and hates all whites. But Chief Cuyloga (Joseph Calleia, previously seen as the Padre in The Littlest Outlaw) displays no favoritism and delivers True Son along with the rest.

On the trail, True Son shows he’d rather die than return to his white family by attempting to eat some poisonous mandrake. Hoping to avoid further trouble, Bouquet asks his trusted guide and translator, Del Hardy (Fess Parker), to escort True Son to his parents and help him get settled. Del becomes something of a surrogate father to True Son, teaching him the ways of the white man and helping reconcile them with his Indian beliefs.

Now this is an interesting, provocative set-up for a story. And as you might imagine, a live-action Disney movie from 1958 is not equipped to handle all the complexities and rough edges of a story like this. However, it comes closer than you might think. The Delaware are treated respectfully, for the most part. The scene where they turn over their so-called “captives” to the British Army is uncomfortable, especially in 2020 when stories of immigrant children separated from their families are still very much in the news. It’s not quite clear whose side the filmmakers are on here but they deserve some credit for at least acknowledging the fact that these people did not want to leave the tribe.

Things get even more complicated when True Son meets his birth parents. At first, his mother (Jessica Tandy, already playing a frail old woman at the age of 48) appears like she’s going to be small-minded and racist. She makes him put on new clothes and refuses to let him leave the room until he says his “real” name, John Butler. But later when she’s teaching him English, we realize she’s not trying to make him forget his Indian language. She thinks he should learn as much as he can about everything and asks him to teach her the language of the Delaware.

The town’s real racist is Wilse Owens (Wendell Corey), a member of the Paxton Boys, a real-life vigilante mob notorious for slaughtering Indians in the Conestoga Massacre. Wilse goes out of his way to antagonize Johnny/True Son, even building a scarecrow out of his Indian clothes to use as target practice. Wilse also has a pretty 17-year-old indentured servant named Shenandoe (Carol Lynley in her film debut). And even though this is a Disney film, it’s very clear that Wilse’s intentions are less than honorable.

The movie’s ideology gets particularly jumbled in its final act. After Wilse kills one of Johnny’s Delaware friends, he returns to the tribe. The murdered boy’s father wants revenge but Cuyloga cautions against breaking the treaty. When the council outvotes him, he reluctantly agrees to join them on the warpath, attacking a group of white settlers, including women and children.

True Son is forced to prove his loyalty to the tribe by luring in another group but warns them away from the ambush at the last second. He’s appalled that his Indian brothers are ready to kill innocents. The tribe turns on True Son, painting his face black-and-white to symbolize his two-faced nature and planning to burn him at the stake. Cuyloga intervenes and spares his life but exiles him, declaring he no longer has any Indian blood in him.

Del finds True Son/Johnny and promises to take him back home, hoping that Johnny’s experiences have taught him that there’s good and bad in everyone. Except for maybe Wilse Owens, who seems to be pure evil. Johnny wants to kill him but Del warns he can’t exactly do that. Instead, Johnny challenges Wilse to a fist fight, “like a white man”. After Johnny kicks Wilse’s ass, they come to some kind of reconciliation with Wilse begrudgingly and somewhat admiringly admitting, “He’s white, alright.” Wow.

That ending is really the biggest flaw in The Light In The Forest and it’s a doozy. Wilse is an unrepentant racist, a murderer, and presumably a rapist. And yet he receives no punishment and learns nothing from all this. His comeuppance only serves to reinforce his racist beliefs. This is like Disney saying there are some very fine people on both sides. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

It’s a shame because the rest of the movie at least attempts to grapple with the complex issues it raises. Shenandoe is an interesting character and an effective way to hint at the shadow of slavery without throwing another racial dynamic into the film’s already confused politics. The lyrics of the title song inform us that the light in the forest is love (it is not one of Disney’s greatest hits) because Johnny and Shenandoe end up together. A better, braver movie would have cast a Black actress as Shenandoe and dealt with slavery head-on. But considering Disney’s track record with racial issues, it’s probably just as well they went with Carol Lynley instead.

Both Lynley and James MacArthur made their Disney debuts with this film. Of the two of them, Lynley was the real find. She’s beautiful, charismatic and soulful. Her performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer. So naturally she was smart enough to avoid signing a long-term Disney contract. She went on to a long, eclectic career that included appearances in Bunny Lake Is Missing and The Poseidon Adventure but she never returned to Disney. Ironically, one of her last roles was in a completely unrelated 2003 family movie called A Light In The Forest.

MacArthur came from a show business family. His parents were the great screenwriter Charles MacArthur and legendary actress Helen Hayes. James was attending Harvard when he was cast in The Light In The Forest and one of the stipulations in his contract specified he could only work during his summer break. His performance is more than a little stiff but that could just be the unfortunate way actors were directed to play Native Americans in 1958. We’ll soon find out. MacArthur did sign a contract with Disney. He’ll be back in this column soon.

But this would be Fess Parker’s last rodeo for Disney. No one would deny that he had a hell of a ride, catapulting from obscurity to overnight international stardom on the strength of Davy Crockett. But Walt didn’t want Parker to do anything but play Davy Crockett. Parker had already lost out on plum roles in The Searchers and Bus Stop after Walt refused to lend him out to other studios. And he was getting increasingly bored with playing the same type of role again and again.

After The Light In The Forest, Walt cast Parker in a relatively small role in his next western, Tonka. Parker flat-out refused the part, which was not something actors did to Walt Disney. Walt placed him on suspension and Parker, fed up with the way he was being treated, quit. Afterwards, Parker bounced around movies and TV shows for a few years before landing his second iconic role, Daniel Boone.

Daniel Boone ran for six seasons between 1964 and 1970, not quite reaching Davy Crockett levels of popularity but certainly good enough. Parker pretty much retired from acting after Daniel Boone, turning to real estate ventures and winemaking. Fess Parker died in 2010 but the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard is still open for business in Los Olivos, California.

Herschel Daugherty directed The Light In The Forest. Not only was this his only work for Disney, it was one of the few theatrical films he ever directed. He went on to become an extremely prolific TV director, helming multiple episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, Star Trek, Hawaii Five-O (which co-starred none other than James MacArthur as Danny “Book ‘em, Danno” Williams) and many, many others. Daugherty had a good eye and his camerawork is more active than we’ve seen in some of Disney’s other live-action features. It’s unfortunate that Walt didn’t bring him back for more.

The Light In The Forest is almost certainly the most obscure Disney movie this column has covered so far. The studio has not made it available on Disney+ or any other digital platform. They’ve never even released it on DVD, much less Blu-ray. It has flown entirely under the radar since its initial VHS and laserdisc release.

(UPDATE: A reader informs me that Disney has released this on DVD once. The Disney Movie Club once had an exclusive Educators Resource collection. I don’t think they do anymore and these Classroom Editions can be difficult to find but they do exist.)

There are two possible explanations for this. One is that the studio fears a Song Of The South-style backlash against the movie’s well-meaning but muddled racial politics. That could be but, to be honest, Hollywood studios generally don’t demonstrate that much sensitivity when it comes to Native Americans. Offensive, caricatured portrayals of Indians are shrugged off as just the way things were. If Disney was really worried about their past portrayals of Native Americans, there are a lot of places to start other than this.

To me, the more likely reason is simply that nobody at Disney has given that much thought to the movie. It got some decent reviews at the time and did okay at the box office but it was never a huge hit. Even the novel it’s based on has fallen into obscurity. Nobody in 2020 is clamoring for a big revival of The Light In The Forest.

The truth is it’s not a bad little movie. It’s certainly more interesting than something like Westward Ho The Wagons! But it is a movie that could benefit a lot from a remake. The dark, difficult story it’s trying to tell is directly at odds with Walt Disney’s rose-colored view of the past.

VERDICT: I appreciate the attempt at doing something a little different, so a very minor Disney Plus with reservations.

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