Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Light in the Forest (Buena Vista, 1958)

 

Disney, but still just about watchable

 

Of course it depends on your definition of a Western but Disney’s 1958 film version of Conrad Richter’s 1953 novel The Light in the Forest was certainly a frontier story if nothing else. Set along the Ohio River in 1764, it tells of John Butler, a white boy brought up among the Delaware Indians where he is known as True Son, who finds himself, as the result of a treaty, returned to the family he does not remember and forced to live a new life that is as strange to him as it is unwelcome.

 

The hero of the Disney version is not really the lad, though, but the frontiersman who takes him under his wing, Del Hardy, played by Fess Parker. Fess was really quite a big Disney wheel, having been Davy Crockett in 1954/55, and he would be Daniel Boone in the 60s, so it was natural that the studio would want to use him in a big-screen buckskin-and-flintlock drama. I always thought he was rather appealing, in a tall Clint Walkerish sort of way, and he does a good job here too as the British army scout drafted to help the boy reintegrate into white society.

 

 

The young man concerned was played, again very well, by James MacArthur. The character required a rebellious teenager (they were all the rage in the 50s) and this boy is doubly bolshie because he has been ripped from his home environment, where he was honored as the son of the chief. MacArthur was actually in his twenties then, as ‘teenage’-rebel actors often were, but it doesn’t matter; he carries it off excellently. MacArthur would later do quite a number of Westerns, mostly small screen ones but with small parts in Ride Beyond Vengeance and Hang ‘em High and the lead in Mosby’s Marauders.

 

On the set with his mother, actress Helen Hayes – they seem to be mocking each other’s hairstyles

 

I should say at the outset that The Light in the Forest isn’t just a Disney picture: it’s very Disney. By which I mean don’t watch it if you’re afraid of a sugar high; it’s saccharine to a degree. Why a film designed for a so-called family market also has to be extremely sentimental and soppy, I’m not quite sure. The opening forest scenes seem to have been lifted from Bambi and the theme song alone will have you reaching for a bucket. Schmaltz is too weak a word.

 

Still, once you get past that, it is quite entertaining. One of the best things about it is the cast. Apart from Parker and MacArthur, who as I say are strong, we get Wendell Corey as the racist villain, John McIntire as the paternal pastor, Joseph Calleia as the sage Indian chief, Frank Ferguson as the boy’s decent real dad (Jessica Tandy as the mother is a bit stricter) and Joanne Dru as Milly, Rev. McIntire’s daughter, the vivacious love interest for Fess, even if he is lamentably slow to realize it. Not a bad line-up, huh.

 

McIntire, Corey, good cast

 

And Carol Lynley, later to often be the blonde-girl-next-door-gone-bad, gets an “And introducing” credit in her first big role. She plays Shenandoe (sic), a servant girl indentured to bad egg Wendell (who lusts after her, inasmuch as lusting-after could be shown in a Disney picture) but of course she falls for the young Johnny, who is even slower than Fess to get the message.

 

 

The army colonel promoted to general has a bit of a strange accent but after all, half of them in those days were German. This one is played by Hungarian-born Stephen Bekassy. Rafael Campos plays True Son’s best friend, but as Bosley Crowther said in his New York Times review, he seems to have come to the Delaware people via San Juan.

 

Calleia excellent, as ever

 

There’s a fair bit of action. Both Indians and whites have statesmanlike types who seek peace and understanding between the two sides, and they both have firebrands who believe extermination of the other is the only course.

 

18th century action

 

The film does have something to say about the nastiness and pointlessness of racism, even if the message is disneyfied (I expect the novel did more but I haven’t read it). And you do feel for the young people wrenched from their lives to begin new ones in a, for them, totally alien environment.

 

The picture was directed by TV guy Herschel Daugherty, in a competent if uninspired way, and shot in Technicolor by Ellsworth Fredericks in Tennessee and California locations. Lawrence Edward Watkin adapted the novel into the screenplay, but apparently he changed the ending significantly.

 

Crowther in the New York Times added, “If you don’t go expecting any more than a simple homespun tale on about the 12-year-old level, you should be reasonably well entertained” but I thought that was a bit harsh. Crowther also thought that MacArthur “is noticeably saturnine and stiff, not to mention a little foolish-looking” but I think the critic missed the point. The boy was supposed to be awkward and gloomy. Harrison’s Reports of the day thought “it offers a wholesome, dramatic and fairly exciting story” and that’s about right. I’d generally recommend this picture. Just get some salt tablets to suck on.

 

Jim gets the haircut

 

 

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