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Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow (1963)


Before I removed the plastic on The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh Blu-ray that my daughter gave me for Christmas, I hadn’t realized it was originally a three-part series that aired on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on ABC-TV. I remembered it as the movie I saw in theaters as a kid: Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow. As I now research it, I’m not certain what version of the movie I really saw.

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The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, a two-hour and nine-minute American television series was edited into Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, a much shorter theatrical film that ran in England on a double bill with The Sword in the Stone in late 1963, before it aired on American TV in February of 1964. Since I was born a year earlier, in the United States, I’m almost certain this is not the version I saw.

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It was more likely a third version, edited again, but also called Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, that was shown in theaters during the 1970s on a double bill with either Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs or Treasure Island. IMDb shows a theatrical release of November 21, 1975. Although I don’t remember the second feature, this must have been the version I originally saw. The specifics are hard to remember; the terrifying visage of “the Scarecrow” and the sound of his equally terrifying laugh are not.

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Further complicating things is the fact that IMDb shows the running time of Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow to be 98 minutes. The supposedly “full movie” version I found on You Tube ran only 93 minutes. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume the YouTube version is the one I saw in 1975. It’s the one I watched to write this.

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The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was, in essence, a television series that ran for three episodes. Each one is a self-contained story with only a few elements that could potentially tie them together. I wondered if the theatrical version would make sweeping changes to the story, stitching pieces from each episode together, perhaps in a different order, to tell one coherent story. I quickly learned that the answer is, “No.” The scenes that remain are in the exact same order.

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Both versions start with a fast-paced action scene as the bad guys chase the Scarecrow and his men on horseback following their theft of some contraband. Thinking they have them cornered in a barn, the bad guys deduce that they’ve vanished. “What are they, ghosts?” This statement is vital to the mythos of the Scarecrow, his identity, and his methods, in the context of the story.

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Then, two brief, seemingly inconsequential scenes are quickly excised. In one, some men from the Scarecrow’s band of smugglers mention that if their leader really trusted them, he would tell them his secret identity. It’s not terribly important, but it hints of dissent among the men, which does become a bigger part of a later subplot. (It also deprives the movie of a demonstration about how the Scarecrow secretly announces his runs.)

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In the other, an escaped prisoner, Simon Bates (Tony Britton), that steals a pouch from the bad guy, General Pugh (Geoffrey Keene), asks for help from the same men in the first excised scene, who send him to the vicar, Dr. Syn (Patrick McGoohan). In the movie, Bates immediately knocks on Syn’s door seeking sanctuary. It’s not necessary to the story and, as shown in The Scarecrow, it seems like padding.

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It is soon that the largest part of The Scarecrow is removed from Dr. Syn, basically the first one-hour, self-contained story. Oddly, it’s the most action-packed of the three stories… and the scariest for children, I would guess. In it, a naval press gang arrives in Dymchurch seeking recruits. They kidnap a local man as bait to trap the Scarecrow. Of course, the tables turn and the Scarecrow sets a trap, complete with thunder and lightning and more mentions of ghosts.

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There’s one scene in particular that I liked from this section that’s missing from the movie. It’s a scene in church where one of the Scarecrow’s men, a boy in a marvelous bird mask, shoots an arrow to the pulpit while Syn is preaching. On the end is a piece of parchment with a warning from the Scarecrow that the navy is coming, and every able-bodied man should leave and hide. Nearly the entire congregation then scatters.

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The movie immediately continues where part two of the TV show begins, with General Pugh watching cottages burn as he has obviously made serious his threat to put an end to the smuggling ring and to locate the Scarecrow and his men. In this part of the story, the Scarecrow must deal with the aforementioned dissent from Joe Ransley (Patrick Wymark.) Without the first excised scene, this man’s actions may be viewed as more forced upon him by the general than self-motivated.

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There is only one scene cut from part two, but it’s an important one. The general’s second-in-command, Lt. Philip Brackenbury (Eric Flynn) confides in Katharine Banks (Jill Curzon), the daughter of Squire Thomas Banks (Michael Hordern), that the general doesn’t like him. To prove himself to his commanding officer, he offers to take care of the smuggling problem himself.

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Without this scene, we don’t know in Dr. Syn why General Pugh later scolds Brackenbury when his plan fails. We also have no hint of an even later plot point in which Brackenbury asks Squire Banks for his daughter’s hand in marriage. As it is, both events seem to come out of nowhere. At least hinting at a potential romance between Brackenbury and Banks in part two is a thread that runs into part three, making the whole series a little more unified.

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No scenes from the third part of The Scarecrow are removed from Dr. Syn… well, technically. The part one scene of Simon Bates seeking sanctuary from Dr. Syn is actually repeated in part three. I assume that’s because he doesn’t play a big part of the story until part three and the creators thought we needed a reminder of who he was. It doesn’t matter in the movie because there’s an entire section missing, and we still remember Simon Bates.

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I’ll conclude by mentioning Hammer’s version of the story, produced a year earlier with names changed so not to infringe upon Disney rights: Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg.) If you recall when I wrote about it, I didn’t particularly care for it. However, pull a few scenes from it to add to the mix and you might have a more perfect version of any of the three. As it is, I prefer Dr. Syn; it’s a fun, fast movie. The Scarecrow is longer and more drawn out, like either one movie without an overall plan, or a television series cancelled prematurely.

Written by Robert Westerby

From the novel by William Buchanan and Russell Thorndike

Directed by James Nelson

Starring Patrick McGoohan, George Cole, Tony Britton, Michael Hordern, Geoffrey Keen, Patrick Wymark, Eric Flynn, Jill Curzon

RT 98 min.

Released Nov. 21, 1975

Home Video Disney Movie Club (Blu-ray) The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

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