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

General Pugh: "But the end justifies the means, eh?"

Lieutenant Brackenbury: "Even when those means include torture, General?"

It may be news to some DVD collectors, but one of the most anticipated titles of 2008 is the Walt Disney Treasures release of Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, a family-oriented 1964 miniseries with an enthusiastic fan following. Shown on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color NBC TV show, the three-part movie was also edited into a single feature length attraction to be distributed theatrically overseas. Disney's movie-TV-theme-park empire was a masterful moneymaking machine, with each wing promoting the other. The TV show often featured "specials" on upcoming movies that were little more than 60-minute commercials. They were still more entertaining than the broadcast competition.

The key image of The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is the masked face of the title character, laughing at the camera as he rides by night. At the time it was considered scary for kids, on the order of Disney's earlier Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Although the outlaw hero hides behind a "swamp phantom" disguise and calls himself "The Scarecrow," no supernatural elements are at work.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh revisits the basic plot of an old George Arliss movie, Dr. Syn. On the Dover coast in the 1760s, King George's army is unable to curtail smuggling activities because the overtaxed locals are openly aiding a mysterious masked outlaw called The Scarecrow. Masked as demons and a bird spirit, Scarecrow and his henchmen Hellspite and The Curlew (George Cole & Sean Scully) have enlisted local farmers as smugglers. Nobody seems to know The Scarecrow's true identity.

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment's DVD 'Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh'

By day, The Scarecrow is the sober, intelligent Dr. Syn (Patrick McGoohan), a local vicar considered above suspicion. The kindly Dr. Syn consorts with the local squire Thomas Banks (Michael Hordern) and the cruel Army investigator General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen), using what he learns to stay one step ahead of the Law. The General brings in Navy press-gang crews to snatch able-bodied men from their homes, but repressive measures only increase The Scarecrow's popularity. Squire Banks' own son was taken in a press gang kidnapping four years before.

The three-part story begins with the Army's attempt to trap The Scarecrow using hostages. Part two shows Dr. Syn dealing with an informer in his ranks, Joseph Ransley (Patrick Wymark). Part three begins with the return of the Squire Banks' son, and Syn's efforts to save him and Yankee subversive Simon Bates (Tony Britton) from execution by Pugh's hangmen. The story makes the most of the contrast between The Scarecrow's rough commands with the quiet, civilized voice of Dr. Syn. The locals respect the kindly, reserved Vicar, and fear the wrath of the vengeful Scarecrow.

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment's DVD 'Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh'

The Scarecrow's mask bears a strong design resemblance to that of Heath Ledger's Joker in last summer's monster hit The Dark Knight. Made to resemble a burlap sack, the mask nevertheless clings to the contours of Patrick McGoohan's face. The mouth has a suture-like extension on each side, a very Joker-like design. The Curlew's bird-mask reminds us of Georges Franju's 1963 Judex -- making us wonder if Disney had seen and admired the French film.

Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is the work of James Nielson, a Disney house director skilled at filming preplanned scenarios without much in the way of a personal touch. Most of the movie is action-filmed with no particular style and lacking the memorable set pieces that distinguished Disney's live-action features like Kidnapped and Third Man on the Mountain. Nielson fares much better in the dramatic scenes, making the most of his top-rank cast. The intelligent Patrick McGoohan and Michael Hordern's sympathetic Squire command our attention. Also making good impressions are Kay Walsh (a barmaid), Eric Pohlman (the king) and Percy Herbert (a turnkey).

Frankly, Dr. Syn has a slightly radical basis as well. With its comparison of the tactics employed by the rebels and the military authorities, the film is the closest Disney ever came to making his own version of The Battle of Algiers. The Scarecrow is a terrorist directly challenging the tyranny of King George. He deals with foreign smugglers, and he fellow-travels with an American who spreads seditious political propaganda. As Dr. Syn, he's a traitorous deep-cover agent. Disney coyly calls The Scarecrow a "Robin Hood" type, but he terrorizes his own smugglers to maintain the integrity of the gang, as would the leader of a criminal organization.

That analysis aside, Dr. Syn is still standard kid-safe Disney fare. The worst that happens to anyone is an off-screen beating, and one minor gunshot wound. The Scarecrow never actually harms anybody. The nasty General's dire threats are never carried out, although he does condone the (again off-screen) torture of prisoners. It's a testament to the film's committed performances that Dr. Syn maintains its dramatic tension.

The Scarecrow's hearty laugh and theme song are key childhood memories for the same fan base that worships The Prisoner, the cult TV show that also stars Patrick McGoohan. Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh will surely be one of Disney's more successful Treasures releases.

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment's DVD 'Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh'

Disney's two-DVD set presents two versions of Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. Disc one has the three-part TV miniseries that aired on consecutive Sundays in February 1964. The film itself has been transferred in enhanced widescreen 1:66. Savant wholly approves of this arrangement, as these Disney TV movies are always diminished when presented full frame -- either cramped in pan-and-scan or too loose in full-frame. The technicians have done a particularly good job with the transfer, and getting the film's many day-for-night scenes to look good on video.

The Wonderful World titles and Walt's host intros are 1:33 flat, in keeping with original broadcasts. An extra repeats the Disney intros in a full widescreen format. Disc host Leonard Maltin quips that Disney may have predicted widescreen TV, but I think he was wisely ensuring that his productions could be easily adapted for multiple formats.

Disc one carries a lengthy making-of featurette. Unable to find an intact old church for filming, the production company restored a crumbling monument to serve as Dr. Syn's Dymchurch. As it turned out, both Disney and Hammer films (!) had authorized productions in the works at the same time. It was determined that Disney controlled the rights to the "Dr. Syn" name so Hammer renamed its preacher-in-disguise "Reverend Blyss." The featurette lightly dismisses its competition as "specialists in horror films." Hammer's Night Creatures is more violent and has more salient sex angles. It also lets the vicar retain his original back-story as a brutal pirate named Captain Clegg! Disney's sanitized Dr. Syn only hints at his previous vocation, with a few references to his knowledge of cruel practices by the British Navy.

Disc two has the shorter theatrical version of the film, which is matted to the same enhanced 1:66. The cut-down version "miraculously" incorporates almost all of the content of the three-part TV version in just 98 minutes. Leonard Maltin praises the work of Disney's editors, but simple math tells us that it wasn't all that difficult. Each commercial-free TV episode is only 48 minutes long; the theatrical cut-down times out at an even 98 minutes. But the big screen version subtracts the TV show title sequences and Walt Disney's introductions and epilogues. Also discarded are the "what happened last week" montages and similar "sneak peek" previews, as well as the repeats of the "Scarecrow" song. Episode three also duplicates a dialogue sequence from episode one, which isn't needed for the feature version. When all that material is jettisoned, I'm surprised that Disney didn't have to add more material to fill out 98 minutes. The feature version utilizes the song montage for its title sequence, and to wrap things up rather crudely cuts to a "the end" card.

The extra on the second disc, Burbank to London tells the story of Disney's postwar move to England to make live action pictures, beginning with 1950's Treasure Island. The Disney-centric tone concentrates on the fun of filming overseas, avoiding discussion of Disney status as one of Hollywood's biggest "runaway producers" -- filming in England gave Walt Disney an opportunity to show his bitter enemies, the Hollywood guilds, that he could always take his business elsewhere.

With his theatrical profits frozen in England, Disney takes advantage of special UK tax incentives in the depressed economy of England, where filmmaking is cheap. Other benefits are obvious: England's actors are some of the best in the world. In later years Disney would profit enormously from promising English talent like Hayley Mills and Janet Munro. He raided English technical talent as well, like matte painter Peter Ellenshaw. The finished features earned big network dollars from TV showings, and could also be screened theatrically overseas, where the Disney name was guaranteed to bring in crowds. Once again, Disney's brilliant business acumen transformed a problem into a golden opportunity. The Burbank to London featurette stays away from financial realities, instead telling us that Disney "liked working in England because it was a nice place to vacation."

Happily, Disney's lengthy promos and menu animations are easily skipped with the CHAPTER and MENU buttons, making for a friendlier viewing experience. The double-disc keep-case comes in one of the Disney Treasures tins. A brochure is included along with a certificate of authenticity and an oversized sepia-toned portrait of McGoohan as the gentle Dr. Syn.

Glenn Erickson

reviews online at DVD Savant