“The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” / “Doctor Syn — Alias the Scarecrow” (1963 / 1964)

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By Scott Ross

As a cartoon-obsessed child, I was an inveterate watcher of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (originally Walt Disney Presents, later The Wonderful Wold of Disney.) Most of the episodes, of course, had little to do with animation, at least after Walt stopped hosting the show; it was more a showcase for Disney’s live-action movies, either cut into multiple parts or made directly for television. In 1973, QB VII gained note as the first “mini-series” for television, but Walt had done it two decades earlier with his influential, three-part Davy Crockett series — one part longer than the Leon Uris, please note, about which so much was made in the early ’70s — run during the Disney show’s first season in 1954, before being edited into a much briefer theatrical feature.

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The Disney series that had the strongest impact on me was the 1970 re-airing of the three-part 1963 The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. What I was unaware of then was that Walt had originally produced the series, in 1963, with an eye to re-editing it into a theatrical feature, which he duly did, releasing a 96-minute edition (as Dr. Syn — Alias the Scarecrow) in Britain before airing the three-part edition on American television in 1964.* I was also unaware, not being a viewer at that time of either Secret Agent or The Prisoner, of the series’ star, Patrick McGoohan. What gripped me were the eerie, malevolent spectre of Syn in his terrifying Scarecrow garb, complete with cross-bar emerging from the shoulders, and that ghastly, sneering laugh. Although we are given to understand, fairly early in the narrative, that this hair-raising figure with his hellish rasp of a voice is in fact the Robin Hood-like pastor of Dymchurch parish, an eerily effective aura of menace and the quasi-supernatural still pervade the series. What shocked my nine-year old sensibilities most, however, was, in Part Two, the mock-hanging of the gang’s traitor Ransley (Patrick Wymark); extremely strong meat for a more or less sheltered pre-pubescent for whom thanks to an overly-sensitive mother — the most intense televised experience in suspense had been watching re-runs of Jonny Quest.

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The Disney collectors’ tin series of DVDs briefly (it was a fast sell-out) included a two-disc set containing the original 1964 tripartite run of the show, complete with Walt’s avuncular, if slightly duplicitous, introductions† and the theatrical release version, in gorgeous color and widescreen format. (The director of photography was Paul Beeson.) Alas, the Blu-ray edition, available only to members of the Disney movie club or to collectors willing to pony up a premium on EBay contains only the original series, omitting the movie.

I’ve just re-visited these splendid examples of Disney “synergy” (how the octopoidal Michael Eisner must have loved them!) and so a few observations seem in order. First, and surprisingly, when one considers how much had to be cut, the shorter theatrical release holds up remarkably well, considering it is only half the length of the original series. It lacks, curiously, the atmospheric opening sequence that was such a hallmark of the longer television edition and which contains Terry Gilkyson’s memorably folk-flavored “Scarecrow,” itself something of a lyrical puzzle. “Scarecrow!/Scarecrow!/The soldiers of the King feared his name,” runs the opening line.” Do they? I see scant evidence of this claim in the action of the movie(s). And this, which makes perhaps for effective balladeering but almost no narrative sense:

So the King told all his soldiers,
“Hang him high or hang him low!
But never return
‘Til the day I learn
He’s gone in the flames below;
Or you’ll hang —
With the great Scarecrow!”

Well, I mean, really. The King (played in a single scene, and with an appropriate Teutonic inflection, by Eric Pohlmann) says no such thing. And how can they “Hang with the great [Who calls him “great”? Certainly not George III!] Scarecrow” if they do indeed return without him? Speaking of music, the score, by Gerard Schurmann, is wildly over the top, in a manner very un-Disney. Say what you will about Walt’s occasional bent to sentimentality, the scores he commissioned are usually far subtler than the banging, crashing, string-and-brass-heavy cues Schurmann came up with here. Even the one nice touch — flutes fluttering up, then abruptly down, in a pair of tense sequence — has the feel of “Mickeymousing” although, since the music doesn’t accompany a specific action, it isn’t.

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The Scarecrow menaces Ramsey

Syn’s Scarecrow hood, while effective, is also highly unlikely, since the Disney make-up artists molded the mask for effective speaking by taking a cast of McGoohan’s head, something the Reverend Doctor himself would hardly have bothered doing for himself.

There is virtually nothing else to criticize. By which I do not mean that The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is a perfect work, merely, for a children’s series, an unusually engaging and sophisticated one. The English pedigree doubtless helped — it was loosely based on Russell Thorndyke’s far grimmer, and racier, books — and the (mostly) British cast is a decided asset, especially in McGoohan’s amused dual portrayal of Syn and the Scarecrow, on the one hand kindly (if slightly arch) and gentle, while on the other (seemingly) vicious and threatening; in the great Michael Hordern’s multi-faceted Squire of Dymchurch, no supporter of either Scarecrow or Redcoat, and with a private ax to grind against the King’s Navy; in George Cole’s smiling jack-of-all-trades sexton Mr. Mipps; in the smirking cruelty of Geoffrey Keene’s General Pugh; in the comic rages of Kay Walsh’s innkeeper Mrs. Waggett; in Alan Dobie’s imperious prosecutor; in Eric Flynn’s earnest Lt. Brackenbury, knowing he’s abetting an evil system but not quite able to buck it… until he does; in Patrick Wymark’s self-involved and venal Ramsey, who nevertheless evokes pity in the viewer; in Elsie Wagstaff as the kind, aged Mrs. Ransley, viciously ill-used by her stepson; and, most particularly, in Sean Scully’s remarkably poised John Banks, son to the Squire and secret cohort of the Scarecrow. Scully has the requisite attractiveness of a Disney boy-hero (he was previously the Prince and the Pauper, also for Disney) but gives a performance infinitely more measured and mature as befits John’s social rank  than any comparable job by a young American of the period.

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A rather gaunt-looking Patrick McGoohan, with Sean Scully

There’s an enormous amount of day-for-night shooting in the series, most of it first-rate. (The director was James Neilson, who later helmed the delightful 1967 Disney comedy The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin), and some equally good matte work. (By whom?) The script, by Robert Westerby, is tidy and compact — clever always, witty when called for and neither under- nor over-wordy; and the costumes, art direction and set decoration, by Anthony Mendleson, Michael Stringer and Peter James respectively, could scarcely be bettered.

In either full-length or foreshortened version, The Scarecrow benefits from Walt Disney and his creative staff treading with such skill that exceptionally difficult terrain: The line between juvenile and adult. A child of six or seven can follow this story easily, yet an adult in his 50s (ahem) will never be bored, or annoyed, and indeed will pick up, and savor, a great deal more of the film’s (or films’) historical references and period flavor, along with wallowing in the almost gratuitous splendor of that remarkable cast… and being, as I was in 1970, suitably spooked by the rest.

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* The movie was only shown on American theatre screens in 1975.

† Disney claims Dr. Syn existed: “One of the strangest characters who ever lived,” Walt avers. “A real-life [emphasis mine] Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He lived in England nearly 200 years ago.” No, he didn’t; although Thorndyke based Dr. Syn’s activities on those of the 18th century Hawkhurst Gang, the character himself lived entirely in the brain of the author, at least before his novels were loosed upon a ravening public. The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was based largely on the 8th such volume, the 1960 Christopher Syn, which listed the American William Buchanan as co-author.


Lyrics copyright Walt Disney Music Company. All other text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross