After seven-year-old Mara Wade is orphaned in the outlands of Alaska by a bear attack, she is taken in by a pack of wolves and raised in the ways of the wild. Twelve years later, long after a search for her family has been called off, Mara’s existence is discovered almost simultaneously by honorable Fish and Wildlife agent Ken Williams and unscrupulous hunter Jarnagan. Ken wants only to save and protect her (and maybe romance her a little, as well), while Jarnagan wants to capture her and sell her to a traveling freakshow. The expected family-friendly wildlife adventure hi-jinx ensue.
Overall, MARA OF THE WILDERNESS is an uneven adventure film without all that much adventure. A lot of time is spent casting Jarnagan in an extremely villainous light, but he never seems that credible of a threat to the principal cast. It was obviously designed with family in mind, but I find it difficult to believe that even the easiest-to-please youngsters would be entertained throughout the film’s entire running time. There’s an awful lot of talent on display here, and all of the trappings of an all-ages favorite, but it just never manages to find itself.
Despite being set in modern times, MARA OF THE WILDERNESS really is something of a western at heart—a genre that screenwriter Thomas W. Blackburn was no stranger to. Among his other credits: COLT .45 (1950), RATON PASS (1951), RIDING SHOTGUN (1954), DAVY CROCKETT: KING OF THE WILD FRONTIER (1955), DAVY CROCKETT AND THE RIVER PIRATES (1956), and 16 episodes of THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY (1954-1961)—including a number of their Davy Crockett episodes. He even wrote the lyrics to “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, so he and the frontiersman are now inexorably linked in memory.
Likewise, director Frank McDonald had worked on plenty of westerns, as well: Gene Autry vehicles RANCHO GRANDE, GAUCHO SERENADE, CALIFORNIA MOON, RIDE TENDERFOOT RIDE (all 1940), UNDER FIESTA STARS (1941), SIOUX CITY SUE (1946), TWILIGHT ON THE RIO GRANDE (1947), THE BIG SOMBRERO (1949), TEXANS NEVER CRY (1951), and 16 episodes of THE GENE AUTRY SHOW (1950-1954); Roy Rogers films LIGHTS OF OLD SANTA FE (1944), BELLS OF ROSARITA, AMONG THE NAVAJO TRAIL, SUNSET IN EL DORADO, MAN FROM OKLAHOMA (all four 1945), MY PAL TRIGGER, SONG OF ARIZONA, UNDER NEVADA SKIES, RAINBOW OVER TEXAS (all four 1946); and many others in the genre. This was his final film credit, closing out his career with five episodes of television spy comedy GET SMART from 1964-1965.
If this feels like something of a vintage Disney adventure movie to you, there’s a good reason for it. Aside from screenwriter Blackburn’s pedigree at the House of Mouse, it was produced by Brice Mack. Mack was employed at Disney Studios for a number of their classic films, contributing as a background artist to FANTASIA (1940), CINDERELLA (1950), ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951), PETER PAN (1953), and LADY IN THE TRAMP (1955). He even worked on some short scripts for the company along the way before breaking off and setting out on his own. On an interesting, but unrelated, side note, Mack directed the 1978 horror film JENNIFER, which is about as far away from Donald Duck as one can get.
MARA OF THE WILDERNESS was filmed in Alaska (as proudly stated in the credits) and in the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon (which was conveniently not mentioned), and the location photography is absolutely beautiful. Even more beautiful, though, is the lovely Lori Saunders (PETTICOAT JUNCTION) in the title role. I’ve had a retrograde celebrity crush on Saunders since I saw her in the bonkers patchwork horror film BLOOD BATH (1966), and was glad to find another film of potential interest in which she featured prominently. She runs around in a slightly-skimpy fur-trim outfit the entire running time, baring enough skin to keep the fathers in the audience interested but not so much that they have to answer any uncomfortable questions from their sons.
Saunders-as-scenery was truly one of the biggest draws to this film for me—it’s difficult to judge her acting as she says little to nothing, but she does perform admirably the mimery that she’s given—but it’s also one of its weaknesses. She is consistently primped and polished, her legs and armpits conspicuously devoid of body hair, which is an unlikely representation of a woman raised by animals. I suppose a hairy and snarling feral woman would be a bit much for some audiences. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’d be better off watching Jack Ketchum films.
The deciding factor for me actually sitting down to watch this movie, though, was the presence of Adam West as Ken Williams, only a year before his career-defining role in TV’s BATMAN. What I wasn’t expecting is that West’s performance is really rather restrained, avoiding the stilted staccato that has since become his trademark in favor of a more traditional delivery. He does pretty well for himself as the saccharine park ranger, whose heart is so pure that he befriends a raccoon like the plot of some long-forgotten sitcom of the era. The character is almost sickening in his boy scout mentality at times, but then he goes and throws a few punches at Jarnagan—a scene-stealing Theodore Marcuse—and he becomes a little easier to like.
Though a few BAM! and SOCKO! title cards would have been appreciated.