Walt Disney was known for producing sweet family-friendly entertainment. Even though his films had scary moments, there was always that soothing song to calm down the frightened kiddies. That all changed when The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh debuted on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in 1964. The three episodes about disguised smugglers at an English coastal town was not cute and cuddly. Patrick McGoohan was not cut from the same charming cloth as Fred McMurray, Dean Jones or Robert Loggia. He maintained the same intense demeanor that would make him a cult figure as The Prisoner. This makes Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh the most unconventional and desirable of the Walt Disney Treasures series.
In the 18th Century things weren’t going well for the people of the English coastal area. Poverty was out of control. Taxes were outrageous. The recruiters from the Royal Navy were knocking out local men and dragging them off to sea to become sailors. But salvation came to this destitute country in the form of The Scarecrow. This mysterious man masked to look like a scarecrow organized the locals into an efficient smuggling operation. They dealt in booze and cloth from France. The King of England is upset that he’s being undercut by the Scarecrow. He sends his troops into the area to expose and punish the criminal kingpin. Who could be the ruthless and diabolical genius?
Would you believe the area’s solemn vicar, Dr. Syn? A minister is undermining the rules set by his King. The profits from his operations help the impoverished in his parish. He is ably assisted by his Sexton (George Mipps) and the son of the town’s squire (Sean Scully). They also wear creepy masks as a skull and seagull when in full smuggling gear. They are the only people who know his true identity. All the rest know him either as the stern minister or the cutthroat Scarecrow. He’s Robin Hood meets Batman. What set McGoohan apart from other Disney heroes is that he’s not a sweet lovable minister when he removes the Scarecrow mask. He’s still a strict and fierce man.
The three shows contain separate exploits along with the continuing saga of the royal army hunting down the Scarecrow. The first show deals with a Naval press unit “recruiting” in the area. They are snagging all able bodied men. One local gets knocked out while seeking help to deliver his baby. The second episode has a farmer tempted to rat out the operation to the crown for a pile of gold. It’s up to the Scarecrow to remind his crew the fate of those who break the code of silence. The final installment is the most daring as the Scarecrow must smuggle out a navy deserter and an American revolutionary. He has to sneak into a prison as part of the plan. Because of the tone, there’s a feeling the Dr. Syn might get snuffed at the end. There’s real jeopardy in this Disney production. The second disc contains all three episodes expertly edited down into a 98 minute long feature film that was released theatrically as Dr. Syn: Alias the Scarecrow.
There are plenty of shocking moments in this dark production. The “hanging scene” is cringeworthy as the Scarecrow takes care of business. What makes this an anti-Disney production is that after the truth of the scene is exposed, we aren’t relieved by comic laughter from the characters. Instead we get a blast of fury from the Scarecrow. McGoohan presents a minister who is passionate about his flock, but not sweetly lovable. Dr. Syn is the most “unDisney” of Disney shows which is why it’s most memorable.
It’s been years since the rumor had floated out that Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was coming out on DVD. There’s a lot of eager fans who have had their hopes teased. It’s finally here. If you have any desire to own Dr. Syn, do it now. Click on the link and order it. Odds are high that these boxsets will vanish shortly. In the past Disney has put out 250,000 copies of some titles. This time it’s been reduced to 39,500. Actually there’s only 39,499 after deducted the one reviewed here. These might not be around for purchase with your post-Christmas gift cards. You don’t want to be forced to deal with smugglers to secure your copy of Dr. Syn.
The picture is 1.66:1 anamorphic for both the TV show and the theatrical film. The transfers capture the dark shooting. There’s plenty of day for night filter tricks of the smuggling shots so your blues will be pushed. The prints are rather clean compared to the version I caught on the Disney Channel back when they had the Vault Disney programming. The audio is Dolby Digital Mono and Dolby Digital 5.1. The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix has more bass which adds to the score. The episodes and movie are subtitled in English.
Leonard Maltin Introduction – Disc 1 (2:42) briefs us on the restoration process and the aspect ratio.
Leonard Maltin Introduction – Disc 2 (3:08) elaborates on how Dr. Syn was carefully edited down from three episodes into a feature film.
Walt Disney TV Introductions in Widescreen (4:27) are the original TV intros, but shown in the original 1.66:1 framing to match the theatrical movie. You get to see more of Walt’s office.
Dr Syn: The History of the Legend (16:13) recounts how Russell Thorndike was inspired to write the book after a murder in his New York hotel. Patrick McGoohan is part of the talking heads. It’s a shame he doesn’t dominate the conversation. He does explain why his mask fit perfectly.
Walt Disney: From Burbank to London (11:39) explains how the studio started making films in England. Turns out in post-World War II England, Walt couldn’t get his theater revenues transfered out of the country. He had to spend the money in Britain. There’s an interview with director Ken Annakin. (Did You Know?: Darth Vader’s real name came from him.)
Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is still a thrilling adventure after 44 years. There was talk earlier this year that Disney was discontinuing the Walt Disney Treasures series. It would have been a crime if they’d kept Dr. Syn in the vaults. Patrick McGoohan’s fierce moments while wearing the Scarecrow mask rival his work on The Prisoner. If you have the slightest curiosity about Dr. Syn, buy it now.
Walt Disney Video presents Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. Starring Patrick McGoohan, George Cole & Kay Cole. Running time: 287 minutes. Released on DVD: Nov 11, 2008. Available at Amazon.
Tags: Disney, The Prisoner, Walt Disney