Walt Disney Treasures - Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh Review

Created by author Russell Thorndike in his 1915 book Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh and subsequently injected with family-friendly hero qualities by this Walt Disney production, the character of vicar by day, smuggler by night Dr. Christopher Syn is something of a Robin Hood type based off the English coast in the 18th century. The background of the Dr. Syn character is at least as fascinating as the actual Disney incarnation, and even though Syn's popularity is largely relegated to a smallish cult who best remember him as played by Patrick McGoohan, there's a nice rumbling germ of a legend to be uncovered on the man whose alias was the Scarecrow.

A full twenty years after the first Dr. Syn book, Thorndike resurrected his protagonist for a series of new stories that were all prequels to the initial iteration. This coincided with a film version called Doctor Syn, released in 1937 and starring George Arliss in the title role. However, it wasn't until 1960 that Walt Disney apparently became interested in the story. His company snapped up the rights to yet another incarnation of the character, a new book called Christopher Syn that was credited to both William Buchanan, an American, and Thorndike. A couple of years later, right after Hammer Films turned out the Syn-inspired Captain Clegg, James Neilson was brought in to direct a cast including McGoohan, George Cole and Michael Hordern. It's interesting that McGoohan states in a featurette on the first disc of this set that he was under the impression they were making a regular feature film while shooting was taking place. Disney's plans were somewhat broader. In a serialised three-part run on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, the Dr. Syn adventures were dubbed "The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh." Each entry works as a standalone, but the three also connect to form an episodic whole. Meanwhile, the UK got a theatrical version that was condensed into 98 minutes, known as Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow. Pleasing most everyone, both versions are included in this two-disc release.

To start off part one of the television version, viewers of this set will see a grandfatherly Walt Disney introduce the episode with the assurance that Dr. Syn and his exploits were real, occurring during the reign of King George III and taking place in the area commonly known as the white cliffs of Dover. The fact that Disney is either fibbing or misinformed seems almost beside the point. Walt was a peddler in fantasy just as much as any famous magician or illusionist and telling everyone gathered around their shiny new colour television sets that they're about to see a story dealing with a real, adventurous hero was just another way to insulate the magic. Technology has perforated Disney's stories, as has an increasingly cynical world doomed by manufactured pop stars and brand marketing that's so out of control one could sincerely question whether the world of Disney continues as a means of entertainment or an excuse to advertise all the various products for children (and suckers) of all ages. Yet, when the Disney mystique was really geared up sprinkling pixie dust on all who'd allow it, the films and shows produced in that time, including Dr. Syn, have an almost unparalleled ability to make you feel like a kid again regardless of age. Something like Dr. Syn isn't great art, but it can be viewed as great escapist entertainment that never seems corny or reaches beyond its boundaries. There's a place for that, too.

The stories in the three television offerings do basically resolve themselves within the length of each one, but the overarching plot is consistent in that the Reverend Syn serves as vicar to an impoverished coastal community while secretly acting as the Scarecrow by night to smuggle imported goods that can then be sold off to keep the townspeople afloat. Only two other people know of his dual identity: loyal Mr. Mipps (Cole) and young John Banks (Sean Scully), son of the town squire. They also belong to the Scarecrow's band of gentlemen smugglers, all of whom wear masks to protect their own identities. The Scarecrow's reputation is that of a villain and he's highly sought after by the authorities, foremost being General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen) in the serial and film. The locals actually respect and appreciate the Scarecrow's efforts despite his undeniably illegal methods.

When trying to decipher the merits of either the film or the longer television version, there's the sheer excitement of storytelling to appreciate, but, more than anything, the performance of Patrick McGoohan is just outstanding. He gives Syn a fierce intelligence that does well to assure the viewer this man could really pull all this off. His Scarecrow is, amazingly, cool, creepy and silly all at once. The barking growl he ejects through the Scarecrow sounds ferocious and fully intimidating, as does his maniacal laugh. There's little hint of Syn in McGoohan's Scarecrow and vice versa. His costume too is a mixture of silly and deranged. The stitched and crooked cut for a mouth makes him resemble either a super hero or a comic book villain. Though the Disney version leans decidedly for the heroic, McGoohan's characterisation flirts with an angrier result, one that seems ready to violently erupt at any moment even if we know it's not in the cards here. This is all made even more interesting by the stark contrast to a calm, scholarly demeanor exhibited by the vicar. It's difficult to reconcile that these two halves are of the same whole.

But it's quite fun to try to do so. When the Scarecrow is featured, he's a magnetic mystery man. It's a similar feeling as watching Don Diego transform into Zorro, Clark Kent into Superman, or Bruce Wayne put on the batsuit. The only complaint is the relative scarcity of instances when we do see the Scarecrow. His time on screen pretty much fits the story, but there's that little feeling of anxiously waiting until his next appearance in the meantime. That's not necessarily meant to imply that the rest of the action is lacking, as the other performances are also effective and the stories mostly captivating. McGoohan as Syn is nonetheless the anchor of film and series, sort of making him the Holmes to everyone else's Watson.

Though the changes from the three parts in the Disney television version to the shorter theatrical film are fairly small, careful viewers may notice a few inconsistencies. Generally, the longer serial fleshes out characters and situations and makes for the richer experience. The one obvious mistake is a scene where Dr. Syn and Mr. Mipps give sanctuary to an American fugitive (played by Tony Britton) wanted for sedition that appears in both the first and last episodes. The escapee, no doubt an addition intended to win over stateside viewers, figures in both these installments, but feels unnecessary in the movie. Similarly, a bit of confusion arises in the latter when Lt. Brackenbury (Eric Flynn) is blamed by General Pugh following a humiliation in the courtroom. The film version doesn't give any reason to put fault on Brackenbury, though the serial makes it clear. An entire subplot from the first episode is also lost in the theatrical release, involving the town's gentlemen smugglers hiding out when the King's men arrive. Overall, both work fine, but the television installments seem to be the preference and understandably so.

The Packaging

I complained heavily about the devolving packaging of these releases while reviewing the last wave of Disney Treasures. It seems to change slightly every year and, guess what, it's a bit different again this go-around. The back card is still glued on to the back of the tin with two blobs of sticky gunk. Still no cardboard bands or embossed cases. The difference is with the DVD case itself, which is now a figure-eight style with the two discs overlapping one another. Criterion very briefly used this type of case just before switching to the most recent design, and it's a real pain to dislodge the discs. The case is still extra thick and comes with an eight-page booklet, individually numbered certificate of authenticity, and collectible art all tucked inside.

Each tin in this wave is limited to only 39,500 units, though the text of the certificate lists the print run at 35,000. Either way, that's the lowest of any in the Walt Disney Treasures series thus far and these are sure to become hard to find sooner rather than later.

The Discs

Both discs in the set are dual-layered, with lots of unused space on disc two, and the transfers are progressive. The first instinct for many upon seeing that the television version, as well as the theatrical film, has been set in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio may be one of confusion. Leonard Maltin explains in his introduction that this is actually how it was originally filmed due to the British cinema screenings. The television broadcasts were thus in the wrong ratio without anyone being the wiser. Interestingly, Walt Disney's segments before and after the episodes were also filmed in widescreen, though weren't not told exactly why this was. Despite that, the opening and the Disney introductions are displayed as pillarboxed 1.33:1, with black bars on the left and right sides of the screen. The widescreen Walt Disney intros can be found as extras on disc one. Adding to the confusion, while the Dr. Syn film and episodes are both enhanced for widescreen televisions, as are the Disney segments, the other bonus material is letterboxed.

Far less contentious is the quality of the restoration for the main content. It looks very fine indeed, and remarkably clean with no visible damage. Much was filmed day for night so there's quite a bit of fake-looking darkness, but detail is still rather good. When not shaded, the colours are bright and vivid, especially the red British uniforms, though skin tones are a tad ashen. Grain is present without appearing too heavy. Everything looks to be in great shape, but I did spot some mild digital noise for the nitpickers.

Both versions get the option of hearing restored original mono or an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Purists like myself should find the mono to be of their liking. It's clear, consistent, and without issue. The surround track also sounds excellent. There are a few sound effects that will get your attention, but the main bump is in the rousing score, which thankfully still doesn't become overpowering. It very nicely complements the action while maintaining an acceptable level of volume in comparison to dialogue, which is also easily understood. There are also optional English for the hearing impaired subtitles, yellow in colour.

Resident Treasures mascot Leonard Maltin introduces both discs (2:43 & 3:08) with some informative background on Dr. Syn. These introductions play automatically but can also be accessed from the main menus. The first disc, which contains the television version "The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh," has a nice little retrospective featurette, "Dr. Syn: The History of the Legend" (16:13), about the character's roots. Several scholarly and historian types are interviewed, as is Patrick McGoohan. I was quite impressed with the restraint in this piece, and that it actually informs without becoming repetitive. Walt Disney's introductions in widescreen (4:27), as mentioned above, are also in the first disc's supplemental material.

Disc two has just one other extra feature, a short look at Walt Disney's satellite studio in England called "Walt Disney: From Burbank to London" (11:39). It again features the persons interviewed in the Dr. Syn featurette, as well as director Ken Annakin, and discusses the Disney productions like Treasure Island and The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men that were made in the UK. Even though the bonus material here isn't extravagant, I prefer good quality extras like these to having lots and lots of filler material. We really don't need something like an interactive Scarecrow game or the Scarecrow theme song performed by the cast of High School Musical. The set as a whole feels entirely worthwhile and fans of Dr. Syn will hopefully be happy just having the content in a fantastic presentation.

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