NOTE: Although this was released as part of the Disney Treasures series, it was a limited edition release, and is no longer in print.
It had been over thirty years since I saw the Disney movie Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow at the drive-in as part of a double feature with Disney's version of Treasure Island. I didn't remember much about Dr. Syn, other than the fact that his mask looked cool, he had a sidekick that wore a mask that looked like an owl, and there was a scene in which he hung a man who was tied to a chair. But other than that, Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow existed as nothing more than those hazy memories from my childhood. What I did not know when I was a kid, and did not find out until very recently, was that there were two versions of the movie. There was the version I had seen, Dr Syn, Alias The Scarecrow, but there was also Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, a three-part television movie that aired in 1964 on Disney's Wonderful World of Color.
Patrick McGoohan stars as English vicar Dr. Syn, a respectable clergyman by day who secretly assumes the identity of the mysterious Scarecrow of Romney Marsh at night. A mix of Robin Hood and Zorro, the masked Scarecrow is a local hero to the oppressed people of Dymchurch parish on the coast of England, where the king has levied heavy taxes on the locals. Dressed as the Scarecrow, Dr. Syn leads a small army of other masked men who deal in smuggled and stolen goods, who use the revenue to keep their families fed. No one knows the secret identity of the Scarecrow; accept for two of his trusted sidekicks, Mr. Mipps, a.k.a. Hellspite (George Cole), and young John Banks, a.k.a. the Curlew (Sean Scully). Mipps is the trusted sexton of Dr. Syn, and John is the teenage son of Thomas Banks (Michael Hordern), the Squire of Dymchurch, who finds himself in an uncomfortable situation when the king dispatches soldiers to capture and kill the Scarecrow. The nefarious General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen) leads the hunt to find the Scarecrow, and will stop at nothing, even if it means terrorizing the town locals. Pugh hatches several plans to capture the Scarecrow, but the masked avenger always seems to be one step ahead of the King's army. Meanwhile, Simon Bates (Tony Britton), an escaped American condemned to death for sedition, plays into the action when he seeks refuge in Dymchurch, as does Harry Banks (David Buck), the older son of Squire Banks, who has escaped forced service in the Royal Navy and is now a wanted criminal.
Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was first presented in the United States on the Disney television series Wonderful World of Color (a.k.a. Wonderful World of Disney), where it aired over the course of three weeks in February of 1964. In the United Kingdom an edited version had been released theatrically several months earlier. Eventually, the edited British version that cut together the three television episodes in an abbreviated single movie was released theatrically in American, where it played on and off throughout the 1970s. This two-disc collection features both the three episode version that originally aired on television, and the edited together theatrical version.
Like most of Disney's live action films from the 1950s and 60s, Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is a bit of a mixed bag of tricks. Nearly all of these productions were geared for either the entire family or the younger audiences, and as such the storytelling is often a bit on the simple side. That's to say that neither the characters nor the stories are that complex (although many of these films are quite complex when compared to contemporary family fare), and everything is usually safe. This is what makes Dr. Syn such a stand out movie from so many of the other live action Disney films before or after; it is much grittier, with a darker tone and brooding intensity. That's not to say it isn't family friendly, but it certainly is not nearly as light-hearted as other Disney productions.
The film version, Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow, which appears on the second disc, still holds up for the most part. Compared to contemporary masked heroes in films like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, the Scarecrow may seem a bit dated and hokey, but he still remains a compelling character, thanks to McGoohan's split personality performance. But the real treat as far as this collection goes are the three original episodes of Wonderful World of Color, hosted by Walt Disney, featuring Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, which has been seldom seen in its entirety since it initially aired on television.
The theatrical version of Dr. Syn is fun, but it doesn't really hold up to the three episodes, which make for a much denser story. Each episode runs approximately fifty minutes, and once you subtract the introductions, opening titles and teasers, you're left with episodes that are just over 40 minutes each, meaning the total run time for the television version of Dr. Syn is two hours and some change. By contrast, the theatrical cut of the movie runs just a bit past the ninety minute mark, which means a fair amount has been trimmed. The most noticeable missing element is a sequence where the Scarecrow gets the better of General Pugh, one of the film's more entertaining moments. Both versions work, and are entertaining in their own way, but the original television presentation is a more complete story, and once you've compared the two, it is harder to go back and watch the theatrical cut.
Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is fun. I don't know how well it will be received by younger audiences reared on films like Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean series. Compared to films like that, Dr. Syn seems quaint and old fashioned. But it is fun, and McGoohan gives a great performance. Anyone who saw the film when they were younger will get a kick out of seeing it again
Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is presented in 1.33:1 widescreen, as is the theatrical version, Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow. The picture quality is very good, as both versions have been remastered from negatives. The film's night exteriors were shot day-for-night, meaning they were shot during the day, but filtered to look like night. This can sometimes make the picture difficult to see, but it is a result of the photography and not the transfer.
Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital. The sound quality is very good, with a superior audio transfer and a quality mix.
Each version of the film comes with an introduction from critic Leonard Maltin. Disc 1 has a featurette, "Dr. Syn: The History of the Legend" (16 min), which offers a quick lesson in the character's literary origins and the production of the film. The original intro segments to the television show by Walt Disney can also be viewed widescreen. The second disc features "Walt Disney" From Burbank to London" (11 min), a brief history lesson on how Disney came to make live action films in England during the 1950s and 60s.
This is one of Disney's notorious limited edition releases. I highly recommend it, but good luck getting a copy, as it has already been discontinued by the studio.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]