It's amazing how well this 1964 serial holds up today.

James Plath's picture

Scarecrow, Scarecro-oh,
the soldiers of the king feared his name.
Scarecrow, Scarecrow,
the country folks all loved him just the same.

Walt Disney was a romantic with the core of a wholesome idealist. Even a smuggler by the name of Dr. Syn gets a facelift when Disney gets a hold of him--and I'm not talking about the memorable Scarecrow burlap mask that both fascinated and terrified so many children back in 1964, when he rode across our television screens in three episodes of "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color." I'm talking about the romantic whitewash that the character got. In the 1915 Russell Thorndike novel, this fellow was far more incorrigible than the Disney character, more Jekyll and Hyde than hero in disguise. Disney's Dr. Syn is an American Revolution sympathizer who wages a "Swamp Fox"-like campaign in England's Romney Marsh, helping an American revolutionary and fighting a parallel fight against King George III's unfair taxation and press gang policies. As such, he's probably the scariest Disney hero ever.

Disney and film historian Leonard Maltin, who, we're told, personally selects the material for the Walt Disney Treasures limited edition tin-box series, really did a number on fans of "The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca" and "The Swamp Fox." Instead of giving us the complete series, they cut them up and included a random sampling of each in one tin. That was a heinous crime and an insult to the principles driving this Vault Disney series, but Disney must have heard the outcry. This time they erred on the side of caution, including both the complete three-episode series that aired on American television, and also the edited feature-length version that was shown in Great Britain and the rest of Europe as "Dr. Syn, alias The Scarecrow." So whichever Scarecrow is driving (haunting?) your memories of the show, Disney has it covered this time.

For youngsters growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, the most popular adventure heroes were Robin Hood types. "The Scarecrow" is another variation of the "Zorro" and "Swamp Fox" heroes that had kids everywhere slashing Zs into things and putting feathers in their hats. And those catchy theme songs? The Scarecrow theme by Terry Gilkyson was one that, as Maltin reminds us, really stuck in your head during the week while you waited for the next installment. Then there was that bone-chilling Scarecrow laugh, which sounded an awful lot like the one we remembered from the headless horsemen, another Disney night rider.

"The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" starred "Danger Man" Patrick McGoohan as Dr. Syn, parson of Dymchurch by day but the notorious Scarecrow smuggler by night. At his side is his sexton, Mr. Mipps (who at night dons the Hellspite mask) and young son of the squire who appointed him to his position, a lad named John (Sean Scully). And John wears The Curlew mask when he's riding with the Scarecrow. Only those two know The Scarecrow's true identity. Not even Squire Banks (Michael Hordern) knows, or John's sister, Katharine (Jill Curzon). You get the feeling that the local villagers are a little afraid of The Scarecrow, but they get behind him because the money he earns through the sale of smuggled goods off the southeastern coast of England is turned over to the farmers so they can pay their outrageous taxes.

The plot is a simple one, but the drama is sustained because of strong characters, strong visuals, location filming, and the same basic plotlines that sustained "Pirates of the Caribbean." King George thinks that this Scarecrow fellow has been getting away with murder, and so he sends an arrogant and determined General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen) to do what Lt. Philip Brackenbury (Eric Flynn) was unable: to capture this scoundrel at all costs. There's a forbidden love sideplot, too, with Brackenbury and Kate Banks attracted to each other. And, as with "Pirates," there's a rescue or three, with Kate's missing brother Harry (David Buck) and an American named Simon Bates (Tony Britton) thrown into the mix. Yet another plotline involves a press gang after all the young men in the village, and if you weren't already inclined to hate these guys, you're ready to bob them on the head when they beat and shanghai a man whose wife just had a baby. Come on!

It's those sorts of things that make "The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" an adventure with heart, and McGoohan's intense performance, with or without the mask, helps to elevate this otherwise by-the-numbers made-for-TV movie. It's one of the reasons why the series holds up considerably better than "The Swamp Fox." Dialogue is another. The screenplay was written by Robert Westerby, who probably came to Disney's attention because he wrote for the short-lived "Sword of Freedom" 1957 TV swashbuckler (which was set two centuries earlier), and Westerby was already familiar with the Disney touch, having penned "Greyfriars Bobb: The True Story of a Dog" (1961). While it wasn't a marvel, Westerby's script was just good enough for us to buy into the characters and their dilemmas. And really, that's all that Disney ever seemed to want: to entertain while subtly reinforcing a value system that's formed the infrastructure of all-things-Disney since the very beginning.

Disney was really forward-thinking when it came to television. He planned for the transition from black-and-white to color TVs, filming in color but taking care to monitor the contrast levels so that it also looked good for those who still had black-and-white sets. And he anticipated the eventual home entertainment shift to widescreen, often filming in color and widescreen though it had to be cropped to fit the 1.33:1 TV screens. This series is a case in point. Even Walt's introductions were shot in 1.66:1 widescreen, and presented here (as bonus features) so that fans can see additional detail in the Disney office. And fans of the show will delight that this presentation is 1.66:1, and so you're seeing things on the edges that you never saw when it was first on television. Working with the original masters, the Disney folks have done a fantastic job of digitally cleaning up the episodes, paying special attention to the many night scenes. They could have deteriorated into greyscale mud, but you can still see plenty of detail. Meanwhile, the graininess is barely noticeable. It's a picture that should please fans.

The audio was also remastered in Hi Def, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround really capturing the high- and low-range sounds. And here's how careful Disney was with this release: purists can listen to the original Mono track, which was also carefully restored. For a DVD using compressed audio, this one delivers a pretty dynamic track--though so much of the show is dialogue that you don't get the full six-channel spread except when there's ambient sound or music.

Once again, for a tin-box release there aren't a lot of bonus features, but what's here is superb. Two features under 20 minutes give fans some solid background, along with plenty of rare behind-the-scenes and archival images to savor. In "Walt Disney: From Burbank to London," we get the story of how WWII helped Disney achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a live-action filmmaker. With assets frozen in England, brother Roy suggested that Walt establish a studio there so they could access the frozen funds. And this bonus feature shows behind-the-scenes filming, conferences with set designers, art designers, and storyboarders, and plenty of footage of the cast and crew on-location. In other words, it's more than just a routine talking heads and clips bonus feature. This one is chock-full of rare images and background information.

The second feature, "Dr. Syn: The History of the Legend," is also quite good. It not only delves into the full story of the character's creation, but also explores in depth how the character and story evolved over time: from novel to films to pulp novels and comic books to, finally, these Disney versions (and the Hammer film that was being made at approximately the same time).

As with other titles in the most recent wave of Walt Disney Treasures, this two-disc DVD comes with a full-color booklet that includes a brief tribute to Disney, a brief message from Maltin, and a short table of contents for both discs. Also included is a certificate of authenticity and a tin-sized postcard publicity photo of McGoohan as Dr. Syn.

I only have one complaint--DISNEY, ARE YOU LISTENING?--and it's the packaging. Previous two-disc tin-box releases had a plastic page insert to accommodate the additional disc, but this last wave of Walt Disney Treasures has two spindles that hold overlapping discs. This means you have to remove one disc and juggle it while you access the other, and that makes for more chances to bobble or scratch these collectible discs. If the philosophy was to save money, I think fans would prefer to pay a few cents more for secure packaging.

Bottom Line:
It's amazing how well this 1964 serial holds up today. Better than "The Swamp Fox" and only slightly less fully realized than "Davy Crockett"--the Disney live-action TV serial that started it all--"Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" should delight fans and win over a younger audience. It has the same sort of elements that drive the more contemporary "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, though without the humor.


Film Value