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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 series loosely based on Russell Thorndyke's Doctor Syn novels, made for Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in 1963 note . It starred Patrick 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 resemblance to the books it was based on — mainly because it's actually not based on the original novels by Russell Thorndike; instead, Disney based the miniseries on a novel called Christopher Syn by William Buchan which was itself based on The Further Adventures of Doctor Syn, the fourth book in Thorndike's series. Walt Disney even went so far as to claim that Doctor Syn was a real person when introducing each episode, despite the books having never been marketed as anything but historical fiction. Syn's Anti Heroic qualities are removed and the series makes no suggestion of his extensive, often rather dark Back Story from the novels. He is instead an ordinary, though highly intelligent, parish priest who decided sometime before the story began that the best way to help his parishioners would be to adopt a Secret Identity and become the leader of the local smuggler gang.

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That said, it's a worthwhile production on its own merits. It was filmed on location on Romney Marsh rather than the usual California Doubling of the day, and Disney even funded the repairs to the church in the village of Old Romney so that they could use it as a filming location. 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. In 2019, the three parts of "The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" became the first Wonderful World of Color episodes released on Blu-ray, and only the second serial from any incarnation of Disney's anthology show to reach that format.note 


"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 son of a member of the landed gentry (especially the firstborn son) would never have been pressed as a common sailor. If it happened by some mistake, there would be hell to pay for the officers responsible. It would be much more likely for a squire to volunteer a younger son to serve in the Royal Navy as a midshipman.
    • General Pugh holds the possibility of impressment over the townsfolk, threatening to drag their husbands and sons to the Royal Navy if they don't do as he says. In actual fact, the press wasn't an indiscriminate force of terror, it was a somewhat heavy-handed means of finding sufficient men (preferably with previous seafaring experience) to crew the Royal Navy's ships; being a naval matter, it most certainly would not have been invoked by an Army general, even as a threat. Furthermore, it was usually only used in times of war, and there's evidence to show that the events of this series occur a year before the American War of Independence starter. The fact that impressment was one of the grievances of the American colonists against British rule may well account for the way it's presented in this (American) series.
    • It's highly unlikely that the King himself would get directly involved with the hunt for a local smuggler, even one as troublesome as the Scarecrow. In fact, George III was far from the absolutist tyrant depicted here (while he did involve himself in politics more than his modern successors, he generally left the running of the country to the government), although the fact that this is an American production probably explains why he is shown thus.
    • In his only scene, George III mentions that he is having to deal with a war in France. Yet the year, as borne out by the date on the sign over Ransley's "grave", is 1775. At the time, Britain was not at war with France — the American War of Independence began in the following year, and France joined in on the Colonists' side in 1778.
    • See the entry for Adipose Rex above; although his son (the future George IV) was well-known for being somewhat overweight, George III most certainly was not.
  • Artistic Licence – Law: There's no way that Ransley's trial for smuggling would have taken place so quickly after his arrest. As it is, the trial falls apart when Doctor Syn suggests that the contents of the casks should be examined; they turn out to contain sea-water, not brandy as supposed, and Ransley gets to go free. Then as now, the casks and their contents would have been checked (maybe not thoroughly back then, but enough to verify what the contents actually were) before any trial could take place.
  • 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:
    • Syn himself, being a respected local figure, 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. Doctor 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 he has 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 American independence; quite what he's doing in rural England before the War of Independence started note  is unclear, but his presence is an obvious example of this. Furthermore, Syn himself expresses his admiration for American independence in private, and the Scarecrow does so publicly. We also have George III presented as a tyrannical Adipose Rex, and impressment (a major grievance against British rule prior to 1776) being regarded as an indiscriminate means of inflicting terror on the general population.
  • 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 Doctor Syn as anything but an ordinary preacher who's just helping his parishioners in an unorthodox way — there's no unfaithful wife, and no back-story about his former 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 is 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: General Pugh holds the possibility of impressment over the townsfolk, threatening to drag their husbands and sons to the Royal Navy if they don't do as he says. As stated above, this is an example of artistic license, as the press was never used for this purpose.
  • 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 ... just about everyone. 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. He later resigns his commission, and it is implied that he intends to move to America.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: The Navy press-gang in the prison is rounding up men to serve on H.M.S. Defiant.
  • 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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