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Series / Doctor Syn ("The Scarecrow")

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Scarecrow! Scarecrow! The soldiers of the King feared his name!
Scarecrow! Scarecrow! The countryfolk all loved him just the same....
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"The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" (also known as "Doctor Syn, Alias the Scarecrow") is a three-part adaptation of Russell Thorndyke's first Doctor Syn adventure, made for Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in 1964. It starred Parick McGoohan as the title character, George Cole as his Number Two Mr. Mipps, and Geoffrey Keen as his nemesis, the unprincipled General Pugh.

It bears little resemblence to the books it was based on— mainly because it's not based off the works by Russell Thorndike; instead Disney based the miniseries off a book called Christopher Syn by William Buchan (which was adapted from The Further Adventures of Dr. Syn, the fourth book in Thorndike's series). In fact, Walt Disney claimed that Dr. Syn was a real person when introducing each episode, despite the books never being marketed as anything but historical fiction. Syn's Anti Heroic qualities are removed and makes no suggestion of his extensive, often rather dark Back Story from the novels. He is instead an ordinary, though highly intelligent, man of principle who decided sometime before the story begins that the best way to help his parishioners is to become the leader of a gang of smugglers.

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That said, it's a worthwhile production on its own merits. It was filmed on location in England rather than the usual California Doubling of the day, and the opening song is a rather delightful Ear Worm. The production is an Ur-Example of the Mini Series, being a continuous story told over three episodes, although the phrase hadn't yet been coined.

In the first episode, General Pugh arrives to bring the law down on Romney Marsh because the smuggling is cutting severely into tax revenues; meanwhile an American fugitive is fleeing from the hangman right into Syn's vicarage. The second episode deals with a traitor in the Scarecrow's midst as Pugh tries to ferret out who the smugglers are, and the third sees the Scarecrow's final confrontation with Pugh as the conscripted son of Squire Bates returns as a deserter.

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Like many serials produced for Disney's anthology show at the time, it was edited into a feature-length movie for distribution outside of America, retitled Doctor Syn, Alias the Scarecrow.


"The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Heroism: Dr. Syn. In the books he was a notorious pirate and murderer before he became a vicar. Here he's a staunch hero who abhors killing.
  • Adipose Rex: In his one appearance, George III is portrayed by a rather rotund actor.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The firstborn son of landed gentry would never be pressed as a common sailor. If it happened by some mistake, there would be hell to pay for the officers responsible. (It would be more likely for the Squire to volunteer his second son to be a midshipman.)
    • It's not likely that the King himself would get involved with the hunt for a local smuggler, even one as troublesome as the Scarecrow.
  • Badass Preacher: Doctor Syn, mild-mannered vicar by day, masked avenger of justice by night.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: Walt Disney introduces this as a true story even though the novels were never said to be anything but fiction.
  • Batman Gambit: The fake hanging in the second episode wouldn't have worked if Ransley hadn't fainted from terror, as Syn admits when they bring him around.
  • Battle of Wits: Pugh versus Syn. Pugh isn't a stupid man, either—he comes up with a simple but effective scheme to identify who's likely to be in the Scarecrow's gang in the second episode. But he unwittingly discusses his plans right to his enemy's face, because Syn is important and trustworthy enough to be at the Squire's house whenever Pugh is talking about his newest strategy.
  • Beneath Suspicion:
    • The vicar, being a respected figure in the town, is a frequent guest at the squire's home and a participant in conversations between Banks and the General about how to deal with that wicked Scarecrow.
    • Although Kate Banks remarks that her little brother is always disappearing for hours, no one suspects him of being involved with smuggling.
  • Berserk Button: When Pugh suggests bringing in the press gangs to bring men into the navy as an attempt at control, Squire Banks throws a fit, yelling "don't you dare mention those blaggards here!'' and storms out. It turns out Banks' older son was press-ganged and hasn't been seen in years, thus why he hates them.
  • ...But He Sounds Handsome: Usually inverted. Dr. Syn laments that the Scarecrow hasn't yet been brought to justice and even claims to have been threatened by him. In the ending, though, he "concedes" admiration for the Scarecrow's heroics even if they have to disapprove in public.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The squire's pressganged son is mentioned in the first episode and appears as a fugitive in the third.
  • Courtroom Drama: Ransley and his sons are arrested for smuggling and put on trial in the second episode. It's an open and shut case and the prosecutor is about to get his conviction when Dr. Syn pipes up and suggests that they inspect the "brandy" before hanging them.
  • Creator Provincialism: The first episode prominently features an American named Bates who's been sentenced to hang for publicly supporting independence. (What he was doing in rural England is unclear.) Syn expresses his admiration for the movement in private.
  • Death Faked for You: The Scarecrow holds a trial for Ransley and sentences him to death by hanging. He secretly loops the rope around the back of the chair and lets Ransley down once everyone is gone and tells him to flee to the next county.
    "You're dead, Ransley. Run for your life!"
  • Disneyfication: The series never presents Dr. Syn as anything but an ordinary preacher who's just helping his parishioners in an unorthodox way—no unfaithful wife, no career as a pirate. (Which is not to say it never gets dark—find another Disney production where the hero fakes a lynching.)
  • Enhanced Interrogation Techniques: Pugh tries torturing Harry and Bates for information about the Scarecrow when he recaptures them.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The smugglers are aghast when Scarecrow claims to be blackmailing the vicar.
  • Evil Laugh: The Scarecrow is known for his wicked, high-pitched cackle.
  • Expository Theme Tune: The opening song explains who the Scarecrow is and what he does in a pretty impressive baritone.
  • Failed a Spot Check: When Pugh rakes Brackenbury for letting the fake pressgang through, Brackenbury reminds him that Pugh met them in the courtyard and let them pass himself.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Being conscripted into the Navy is treated as a death sentence, and when Harry Bates escapes from them says they were treated as slave labor.
  • Feed the Mole: The Scarecrow gives Ransley barrels of seawater rather than brandy, knowing that Ransley will try to sell it himself and use the profits to flee. Then, Dr. Syn asks that the barrels be inspected during the trial in order to get Ransley and his sons off from a capital offense.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Syn doesn't kill anyone, but as soon as he realizes there's a traitor in his band, he resolves on making a fearful example without a trace of hesitation. And on the rare occasion he can't avoid physical violence, he can lay a man out cold.
  • Guile Hero:
    • Syn creates such a terrifying persona as the Scarecrow that he ensures nobody will suspect him and cleverly outwits the military at every turn, quickly adapting his plans whenever Pugh seems to gain the upper hand. He also does this without resorting to violence except a couple of times (such as when he steals Navy uniforms), as befits a vicar.
    • Brackenbury saves his career from going down for incompetency by specifying General Pugh's role in Bates' and Harry's escape in his written report, which he's already copied to Pugh's superiors.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: One of the excise men at Dover does want to go on his patrol, but his partner is too busy arguing about their card game to let him.
  • Holding Your Shoulder Means Injury: The two people who end up getting shot in the series (Bates and Ransley) are hit in the arm and spend a lot of time clutching their shoulders.
  • Ironic Name: Bates is a little taken aback that the local vicar's name is Syn. Walt Disney also specifies that it's spelled S-y-n in an intro.
  • Just Like Robin Hood: The Scarecrow uses the profits from his smuggling to help local farmers pay taxes and overdue rents.
  • Kick the Dog: Just in case you were going to sympathize with Ransley for being threatened into betrayal, we're shown that he's a tyrant to his family. He also ditches his elderly stepmother when he decides to flee with his sons.
  • Kid Sidekick: Curlew, or rather the Squire's younger son John.
  • Large Ham: The Squire does not keep his voice down when he has an opinion to express.
    "Women? You'll frighten women?!"
  • Loveable Rogue: Most of the smugglers, who are just doing this to keep on top of impossible taxation. The Scarecrow, Hellspite, and Curlew are not, however. Though the townsfolk admire and shelter them, they find the ringleaders very unnerving.
  • Make an Example of Them: Syn decides he has to make a public example of Ransley to terrify everyone else out of even thinking of selling him out.
  • Mugged for Disguise: Syn, Mipps, and John wallop the pressgang and take their uniforms. Brackenbury recognizes them at once, but treats them as the real deal.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Mipps' alias is Hellspite.
  • Number Two:
    • Mipps, out of disguise, is the parish sextant and verger. In disguise he's Syn's right hand in gathering information from the town and accompanies him in activities too dangerous for John.
    • Brackenbury for Pugh, although he's dismissive of his subordinate.
  • Officer and a Gentleman:
    • Played straight with Lt. Brackenbury.
    • Averted with Pugh, who managed to climb through the ranks and his dismissive of "gentlemanly conduct".
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Mipps goes about as the vicar's gossipy sextant who spends a little too much time at the inn.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Mipps puts on a thick West Country accent and a crutch but otherwise doesn't change his appearance in one scene, but he doesn't need to since he's talking to strangers (and Mrs. Waggett, who's an ally).
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Brackenbury and Kate Banks have a romance in the background, but the Squire calls him a Gold Digger when Brackenbury asks permission to marry. Naturally, he relents after Brackenbury helps free his son.
  • Press-Ganged: The general holds the possibility of impressment over the townsfolk, threatening to drag their husbands and sons to the Navy if they don't do as he says. (More artistic license; the press wasn't an indiscriminate force of terror—it was used primarily on the crews of merchant ships.)
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Squire Banks, who serves as the local magistrate. He disapproves of the General's methods and does his best to stop the more heinous actions with some success.
  • The Reliable One: Brackenbury for Pugh. When Pugh wants to hang men in Dymchurch in retaliation for the Scarecrow's (empty) threat of killing the Naval Press Gang, Brackenbury talks him out of it because it wouldn't bring the Press Gang back to life.
  • Scary Scarecrows: Syn makes use of this to terrify the army. Even his own men are afraid of him.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Brackenbury decides to aid Dr. Syn in freeing Harry and Bates (and the pressganged men) because he's disgusted by Pugh's brutality.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Brackenbury got his commission through his rich father. It's one of the reasons Pugh dislikes him. Although in a subversion Brackenbury is a very capable and competent officer the general is just too proud to see it.
  • Secret Identity: Doctor Syn as the Scarecrow, of course. Mipps is Hellspite and young John Banks is the Curlew.
  • So Proud of You: When Harry Bates escapes the Navy, he goes to his father, showing the scars of his captivity and torture. Rather than be upset, Harry nods and clasps his son's shoulder, whispering "Good lad...good lad."
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Pugh constantly berates everyone around him for being incompetent. When Brackenbury complains to Kate that Pugh thinks he's stupid, Kate points out that Pugh thinks everyone is stupid.
  • Up Through the Ranks: General Pugh started as a private when the majority of officers are gentry who purchased their commissions (and he doesn't think much of them). It serves to make him more villainous, since he disdains "gentlemanly" conduct and instead believes the ends justify the means.
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