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According to a New York Times news item, although Walt Disney bought the rights to the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Conrad Richter in June 1953, a month after its publication, he did not plan to put it into production until 1957. The New York Times review noted that the ending of the film was changed from the book. Location shooting was done at Massengale Point, TN and along the Tennessee River, about twenty miles from Chattanooga. The Rowland V. Lee Ranch in the San Fernando Valley of CA was used for the Indian village, and the "Piney Woods Mountain" scenes were shot at the Rainbow Angling Club in Azusa, CA.
As noted in news items and publicity for the film, The Light in the Forest was James MacArthur's second film. Disney signed him after seeing his first film, The Young Stranger (see below). MacArthur, the adopted son of Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur, was a student at Harvard at the time, and his contract stated that he would work only during the summer break from school. The picture marked Carol Lynley's screen debut. Disney signed Lynley, who had been an actress and model since age ten, after seeing her picture on the cover of Life, but she agreed only to a one-year contract.
According to reviews and news items, Iron Eyes Cody, who played the role of "Blackfish" and acted as technical adviser, designed and made over thirty-five costumes for the film with his wife, Yewas Parker. In addition, Cody was said to have translated the Delaware dialogue and helped the cast speak the language. Hollywood Reporter noted that the actors playing Delawares "speak in the language of the Hurons, to which linguistic group they belonged." According to the pressbook, the Penomsquat Indians in Oldtown, ME made a twenty-foot war canoe for the film, which was to go to Disneyland following production. Disney himself came to the Tennessee location for three days, according to news items. The film's premiere at Harrisburg, PA was to benefit community charities.
Variety, in its review, commented, "Like most Disney productions, it is pastoral in quality, almost fable-like in its gentle approach to some basically bitter situations." Hollywood Reporter noted, "Volumes of fan mail praising authenticity have convinced [Disney] that meticulous research has given his studio tremendous prestige in educational circles and this is of real commercial advantage." The film was telecast in two parts on 12 November and November 19, 1961 as "True Son" and "True Son's Revenge" on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.