Dr Syn Alias The Scarecrow

Starring Patrick McGoohan with Patrick Wymark

by Harry Dobermann

Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow is a 98 minute movie version of "Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" (1964) a three part series for Walt Disney‘s Wonderful World of Color NBC TV show. Patrick McGoohan played the character first introduced in Russell Thorndyke's 1915 novel "Doctor Syn". The Vicar of Dymchurch has a hidden past as vicious pirate Captain Clegg, and still keeps his hand in under the disguise of "The Scarecrow" leading a band of smugglers who pose as marsh phantoms. Disney was obviously attracted by the aspects of Dr Syn which resembled his successful "Zorro" TV series and ignored Syn's past as a pirate to concentrate on the costumed identity of the Scarecrow. Although the TV episodes were screened in 1964, the film version was released in the UK in December 1963.

Directed by James Neilson and written by Robert Westerbury, the film was adapted from "Christopher Syn (1960), a curious pastiche credited to American writer William Buchanan and Russell Thorndyke, original creator of Doctor Syn. The ending of Thorndyke's original novel "Doctor Syn" implid that the story took place a few years before the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), but by the time of "Doctor Syn Returns" Thorndyke had established his character in the 1770's, and this enabled Disney to give the series a more patriotic slant with Dr Syn aiding the beginning of American independence.

Disney had bought the rights to all Russell Thorndyke's "Dr Syn" novels from his publishers, but had been unaware of the 1936 George Arliss adaptation of the first novel, to which Hammer Films had bought the remake rights. Thankfully, the two companies were able to agree a compromise, with Peter Cushing playing "Doctor Blyss" in "Night Creatures" a Hammer Film which played up the horrific elements and eliminated the Scarecrow identity, leaving Disney to make a more wholesome version.

Disney's Doctor Syn has a rousing theme song written by Terry Gilkyson (writer of The Jungle Book's "Bare Necessities") and sung by Thurl Ravenscroft of "Tony the Tiger" fame. The song firmly mythologises the Scarecrow as a wholesome Robin Hood type character (In the TV episodes the Disney studio accommodates Thorndyke's morally dubious Doctor Syn with some special pleading. Walt Disney's introduces the TV episodes claiming that the Scarecrow was " One of the strangest characters who ever lived..a real life Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" (!). Disney goes on to speak of Syn as if he had actually existed.. "in the reign of King George the 3rd, just before the American colonies struggle for independence...when taxation was heavy". Disney goes on to tell the audience that, " like Robin Hood, although he was a thorn in the side of the forces of law and order he was a hero to the ordinary folk of his time because whatever he made as a smuggler he gave away to the poor and needy.")

Harry Frampton, make-up artist on "Frenzy", "Straw Dogs" "The League of Gentlemen" and the "Pink Panther" movies, created a memorable combination of masks and make-up for the Scarecrow. Combined with a "countryfied" version of the gutteral delivery employed by McGoohan in "Brand", Frampton's mask creates an imposing supernatural persona for the Scarecrow.

McGoohan's Scarecrow leads a mostly faithful band of smugglers (aided by George Cole as Sexton Mr Mipps) to outwit General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen) and his Naval press gangs. Patrick Wymark appears in the film and the second TV episode as informer, Joseph Ransley. Pressured first by General Pugh, and then by Revenue prosecutor Frank Fagg (Alan Dobie) Ransley becomes more unkempt as the episode progresses. His northern accent sets him apart from the cultured tones of McGoohan and Cole.

Although played with some credibility by Wymark, the character of Ransley is portrayed as fundamentally untrustworthy from the start. Even his own mother despises him. However, the script does display some sophistication in portraying the manner in which an informer is backed into a corner. Alan Dobie as the prosecutor was a Royal Shakespeare Company colleague of Wymark's, and would challenge him again in 1964 as the single-minded engineer David Corbett in the final series of "The Plane Makers". Richard O'Sullivan, playing one of Ransley's sons, would go on to play another "real life Robin Hood" in the "Dick Turpin" TV series

You can read more about The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh in this article Scarecrow

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