Disney // 1964 // 249 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // November 11th, 2008
"Scarecrow, Scarecrow, the soldiers of the King feared his name.
On the southern coast of England, there's a legend people tell, of days long ago when the great Scarecrow would ride from the jaws of Hell, and laugh with a fiendish yell.
With his clothes all torn and tattered, through the black of night he'd ride, from the marsh to the coast like a demon ghost, he'd show he face and hide, then laugh 'til he split his side.
Scarecrow, Scarecrow, the soldiers of the King feared his name. Scarecrow, Scarecrow, the country folk all loved him just the same.
He would always help the farmer, when there was no gold to bring. He'd find a way for the poor to pay the taxes of the King. Scarecrow, every man would sing. 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 flames below, or you'll hang with the great Scarecrow.'
Scarecrow, Scarecrow, the soldiers of the King feared his name. Scarecrow, Scarecrow, the country folk all loved him just the same.
Scarecrow, Scarecrow, Scarecrow...Hahahahahahaha!"
It's a rare treat when fond childhood memories stand up to the harsh light of adulthood, and that's exactly what we get in The Walt Disney Treasures: Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. I can't tell you how pleased I am to not only have this release on DVD, but to have it arrive in such fine form is a testament to the Walt Disney Company. This has been the most requested live-action title from the Disney catalog, since the birth of the DVD format, and the care they've taken in delivering it is praise-worthy.
Doctor Revered Christopher Syn (Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner) is the beloved Vicar of Dimchurch, the sleepy parish near Dover in the south coast of England. He cares for each member of his parish, even in their dire financial straits, suffering under the oppressive thumb of King George III (Eric Pohlmann, Mogambo). But there is hope in their hearts, courtesy of the mysterious smuggler known only as The Scarecrow. This fearsome pirate organizes the men of Dimchurch to assist in shepherding contraband stolen from government and sharing it with those who need it most, in exchange for the gold needed to pay their taxes. While the men fear The Scarecrow and his two compatriots -- Hellspite (George Cole, Mary Reilly) and Curlew (Sean Scully) -- they know he sacrifices himself and his security to give faith to those who have none. But his time may be short. The King has ordered his military, under the command of General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen, Octopussy), to rid the country of this blight by any means necessary.
The arrival Pugh's armament puts pressure on Sir Thomas (Michael Hordern, A Christmas Carol (1951)), the Squire of Dover, who already has an axe to grind with a government whose Naval press gang beat and kidnapped his son Harry for service to the King. Thus ignites a game of cat and mouse, between Dr. Syn and General Pugh, one which will suffer great losses and greater victories all in the name of freedom, a growing sentiment that extends to the American colonies yearning for independence.
After reading the 1915 novel Dr. Syn and its many prequels by actor turned author Russell Thorndike, novelist William Buchanan found a legend deserving of a revival. This real life bloodthirsty pirate had retired from his swashbuckling life, living out his years as the Vicar of Dimchurch, thanks to his friend the Squire. But unable to shed his adventurous ways, he used his considerable skills to bring justice to the people of his parish under the guise of The Scarecrow, celebrating even the smallest victory in chipping away the control of an obstinate regime. In 1956, Buchanan received permission to rework the character and his history, releasing it as Christopher Syn. The sweeping tale immediately captured the attention and imagination of Walt Disney, who bought the rights.
At the time, following the end of WWII, England had frozen the assets of foreign countries, keeping them from leaving their shores for fear of further financial hardship. In order to recoup the box office revenue generated by such films as Dumbo and Bambi, Walt's brother Roy negotiated a deal with the British government that would enable them to make a series of live action films in England, using the frozen funds to cover their costs. Thus, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was born, although the production team, under the skillful eye of director James Neilson, had no idea their work would become a mini-series for American television. They all thought this was feature film project, and in every sense of the production, it was. Utilizing many of Britain's finest cast and crew, this accomplished American director, whose resume ranged from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to The Rifleman, shot a great deal of the film on location in Romney Marsh, Dimchurch, and Dover, as well as utilizing the legendary Pinewood Studios for many of their interior sets. And for distinctly British as the film is, its sensibilities are unmistakably Disney. While that may not mean much to audiences today, those of us who grew up in this era will immediately revert back to kids, the minute the picture begins.
For as much as Buchanan embellished Syn's history, Walt added his own flair, weaving in the American's fight for independence, as well as the involvement of the Squire's family. His daughter Kate, originally Syn's love interest, has become the girlfriend of morally-conflicted Lt. Brackenbury (Eric Flynn, Ivanhoe). And son John (Sean Scully) becomes the young sidekick to the Scarecrow, Curlew, as Robin to his Batman. Extending the analogy, Mr. Mipps (George Cole) serves as their Alfred, a master of disguise and subterfuge. The result is one hell of an adventure.
Originally presented in three weekly installments on Walt's Wonderful World of Color, beginning February 9, 1964, the 151 minute presentation hasn't been seen in decades. Many of us, including myself, weren't around to see the original broadcast presentation. Instead, our memories are of the 98 minute UK theatrical print released as Dr. Syn: Alias the Scarecrow, which was released to American theaters during the mid 1970s and early '80s, airing at least once on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney, and then released to VHS in 1986. Thankfully, Disney does us the honor of presenting both formats for our viewing pleasure, the difference of which is staggering.
Since the film version is what I remember, that's where I started. For not having seen Dr. Syn for a good 20 years or more, I'm surprised how much of the film's many iconic moments came flooding back. There were even lines of dialogue buried deep within the recesses of my mind that bubbled to the surface. Frightening. But unlike many childhood favorite films, this one holds up. The pacing is tight, the tension palpable, and the acting top notch. McGoohan is absolutely brilliant, differentiating the calm, confident Vicar and the maniacally driven Scarecrow with voice, physicality, and demeanor. Christian Bale could learn a great deal from this performance. These are two distinct personalities, with each serving their purpose while in complete control of one man. And with McGoohan playing opposite Hordern and Keen, what we get is a master class in the art of authentic acting. I must admit I have newfound appreciate for George Col, whose performance as Mr. Mipps serves a much more valuable contribution to the overall effectiveness of the picture than I remember. The jury's still out on Eric Flynn as Brackenbury. There's something very interesting going on inside that head, but we don't get to see enough of it to be sure of what that is. He does play a critical role in the story's denouement, and does so quite well. On the downside, Sean Scully and Jill Curzon as the brother/sister team of John and Kate are lightweights when matched with other members of the cast, but they serve their purpose effectively.
Now here's where it gets interesting. Cleanse your palette and clear your head, because moving over to the full three part tale will likely keep you from ever going back to film version. Honestly, it's like seeing the film for the first time. Not only has it been remastered from a high definition negative, giving the picture a life all its own, but the added depth of story and character development is fantastic. Here we get an entire subplot involving the evils of the Naval press gang (a showpiece for Mr. Mipps), more involvement of the marked American traitor, the love story between Kate and Brackenbury, and a wealth of smuggling Dimchurch townsfolk whose involvement in the shorter tale is minimal at best. This is like reading one of the great literary classics cover to cover, after only having previously read the Cliffs Notes version. There's no comparison. And for those with an aversion to long run times, you needn't worry; there's very little downtime here. Even the quiet moments have weight and propel the story forward. You'll have a greater respect for Syn and his choices, more appreciation for Mipps, and despise Pugh even more than you thought possible.
Presented in fully restored 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, this is the best we'll ever see Dr. Syn. The red coats pop, the navy blues are deep, and the green English countryside is lush. The one problem are the film's "day for night" shots. I know it was common practice of the era, but they were unrealistic back then and appear even more so today. The restoration team worked hard to balance the brightness and contrast, so we can actually see what's going on. Their efforts are well rewarded on the 151 minute version, but for some reason seem less so on the 98 minute print. And yet a side-by-side comparison of the two show they same scenes nearly identical. Not sure what to attribute to overall lessening impression to, but the hunt for the escaped American is the best example of where the filtering fails miserably. As one might expect, the night shoots on the Pinewood sets are a dramatically different story. Well lit and exceptionally staged, there's a clarity and warmth you won't find in the location shots. The prison escape sequence holds the greatest evidence of this. Hats off to the audio team who have provided us with an enhanced 5.1 surround mix. Not an easy achievement, given that your source material was 1.0 monoraul, but the team found the original magnetic recordings and were able to create an effective channel separation that makes a perfect match for the improved imagery. It's really Gerard Schurmann's beautiful, almost biblical, score that benefits the most from the surround, one whose themes will haunt you until the film graces your TV once again.
The Walt Disney Treasures Collection has become known not only for its attention to technical enhancements, but a wealth of supporting bonus material. Not so much the case here. I'm not sure what else they could have included to bolster the package, but it feels thin in comparison to previous Treasure releases.
The ever energetic Leonard Maltin returns as our master of ceremonies, introducing both discs against a green screen backdrop of Dimchurch. And while I have nothing against Maltin, I'm not sure how much value he adds to these releases.
The restoration team uncovered, remastered, and included Walt's original widescreen intros and bumpers for each of the three episodic installments. They weren't incorporated into the new print, but reside as a bonus on Disc One.
"Dr. Syn: The History of the Legend" is a brand new retrospective featurette, exploring the history of the character and the making of the film, courtesy of Disney historians Brian Sibley and Paula Sigman, Patrick McGoohan, and comic book artist Bret Blevins. Coming in just shy of 16 min, it is the lynchpin of the extras and that's no saying much. Unfortunately, the DVD producers interview with McGoohan must not have been that compelling because there's very little of it included.
The only bonus on Disc Two is "Walt Disney: From Burbank to London," a 12 min documentary on Walt's years of live action filmmaking in England. Disney archivist Dave Smith, director Ken Annakin, effects wizard Peter Ellenshaw, and more talking heads discuss the creation of such films as Treasure Island (1950), The Sword and the Rose, and Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The one thing that's clear is Walt's passion for storytelling was just as powerful here, as it was on his animated features.
It's a been a long wait, but arrival of Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh lives up to its legendary reputation in the hearts and minds of fans around the world. Huzzah!
Not bloody guilty! Now go buy the disc before they run out. Remember, this is
a limited run.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English, Restored)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 249 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Introductions by Leonard Maltin
* Remastered Walt Disney episodic intros in widescreen
* "Dr. Syn: The History of the Legend"
* "Walt Disney: From Burbank to London"
* IMDb: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, Part One
* IMDb: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, Part Two
* IMDb: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, Part Three
* Wikipedia: Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn
* DrSyn.com fan site
* Bret Blevins' comic book adaptation of Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow