Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow (1963)
Release Date: December 25th, 1963 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: James Neilson Actors: Patrick McGoohan, George Cole, Tony Britton, Michael Hordern, Geoffrey Keen, Eric Pohlmann, Eric Flynn, Kay Walsh
atman could learn a thing or two from Dr. Syn, alias the Scarecrow. He’s a ceaselessly interesting character, an antihero who strikes fear into the hearts of the men who serve him, yet executes only noble acts. In his mission to save his people from the tyranny of King George III, he presents himself as a borderline villain; donning a fearsome mask, gravelly voice, and cackling laugh creates Darth Vader intimidation, as well as a perfect ruse when it’s revealed that he’s actually a vicar for the Dymchurch parish of Romney Village.
It’s the early 1700s and Dr. Christopher Syn (Patrick McGoohan), a country priest, uses the disguise of a terrifying scarecrow mask to lead his band of rebel “gentleman” to lash out at King George’s treacherous naval press gangs and his ruinous taxes. The Scarecrow menacingly insists that unjust laws can be altered. The smuggler’s successes cause the frustrated ruler to dispatch the Royal Army’s General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen) to clean up the village, no matter what the cost. Caught up in the mix is the lenient Sir Thomas Banks, his daughter Katharine (Jill Curzon) and her lover Lt. Brackenbury (Pugh’s second-in-command), and Harry (David Buck), a soldier recently returning from deserting service.
Originally a three-part television series chopped together into one feature-length film, the movie version doesn’t lose much of the appeal of the full version, nor is it painfully obvious that scenes have been edited out. Only once is there a break that feels out of place. The story, based on the historically set series of novels by Russell Thorndike, makes sense, is sharply paced, and is nonstop fun. With a riveting theme song and plenty of action, it’s no wonder this relatively obscure production is so highly sought after on home video.
The perfectly cast McGoohan uses a blend of makeup mixed into the scarecrow mask to reveal an eerily realistic moving mouth during scenes of conversing. The mask is a striking extension of his face, even though its nothing more than a burlap sack when removed. The design is a cleverly demonic blend of horror and awe, paired intuitively with an insane, shrill cachinnation. With an anonymous identity, an expressionless visage, and a frightening presence, the Scarecrow is one of the most gratifying cinematic crosses between protagonist and antagonist, always ready with a plan that serves as both a lesson for his men and a warning for the king. And to match such an engaging hero is the merciless Pugh, a man whose evil is bested only by his superiors, generating a pleasantly devious hierarchy of villainousness. Dramatic, exciting, suspenseful, and swashbuckling (even though only one sword is brandished), “Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow” is an absorbing film whose title character takes his rightful place alongside the likes of Robin Hood, Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and every other hero who valiantly fights against injustice.
– Mike Massie