The Scarecrow of Romney Marshby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As Halloween approaches with the images of people dressing up in scary costumes, spooky skeletons causing mischief and unexpected scares existing in the dark, Disney fans never seem to recall that those were aspects of a story about what Walt Disney told television audiences in 1964 was "one of the strangest characters who ever lived."
The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was a three-episode installment of The Wonderful World of Disney weekly television show and was later released as a theatrical feature film. Its eerie escapades, thrilling historical storyline set during the time of the American Revolution, and featuring a terrifying champion created an avid cult following for many Disney fans and at times seemed somewhat supernatural.
Romney Marsh is not the name of a person but is a sparsely populated hundred square mile wetland in the counties of Kent and East Sussex in the south-east of England. Because of its isolated location and the geography of the area, it was used by smugglers between the 1600s and 1800s to bring in items at night like alcohol and tobacco from France, Belgium and Holland to avoid paying high taxes.
The smugglers were sometimes called Owlers because of the owl-like calls they used to communicate with each other in the darkness but the most prominent group was the infamous Hawkhurst Gang.
The area and its lore inspired many writers including British actor and novelist Russell Thorndike, who in 1915 published his first novel about Christopher Syn, the kindly, soft-spoken vicar of the little town of Dymchurch.
Thorndike was born in Kent and grew up hearing the stories of smugglers who had frequented the area. His father was a local cleric. He was the brother of well-known British actress Dame Sybil Thorndike. One night trying to calm her after they had witnessed a murder in the streets while on a stage tour, he came up with the story of the mysterious Dr. Syn.
However, the vicar's scholarly and pleasant personality hides the fact that he was once a vicious pirate named Captain Clegg and that currently he is the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, the mysterious masked leader of a band of local smugglers.
Being an actor, Thorndike actually portrayed Dr. Syn in a 1925 London stage adaptation. He was alive and well when the Disney film was being produced and he visited the set during filming proclaiming, "I'm absolutely delighted with the treatment in the Disney production."
Thorndike wrote seven novels about Dr. Syn until the final novel in 1944. In 1960, American author William Buchanan reworked Thorndike's 1936 Further Adventures of Doctor Syn under the title Christopher Syn giving Thorndike co-authorship credit and supposedly with Thorndike's blessing. The original 1936 novel was not copyright protected in the United States.
Buchanan's version has some different elements, including the conclusion and the renaming and even removal of some supporting characters. It was Buchanan who came up with Squire Banks and his daughter.
Christopher Syn became the basis for the 1962 Disney production but Walt made several changes. The Squire's daughter was a romantic interest for Dr. Syn but Walt felt that was distracting from the core story he wanted to tell so shifted the romance to a young British lieutenant.
Disney invented the character of the Scarecrow's young friend, John Banks, not only to provide a role for Sean Scully who Walt had liked doing the dual role in the Disney live-action film The Prince and the Pauper (1962) but also to include an identification figure for young viewers.
Walt set the story in the year 1775 so that he could include references to the forthcoming American Revolution, a popular fascination for him, and introduce an American character who was declared a criminal for promoting sedition of the American colonies to seek independence from England. By including the character, Walt hoped that American audiences might become more invested in the very British story.
While Walt could see the fascination with the pulpish exploits of the character, he intended to make a film of both high adventure and heart with an emphasis on the impact on families.
He envisioned the character of Dr. Syn/Scarecrow to be similar to Robin Hood, robbing from an unjust monarchy to help the poor. Walt probably also noticed a similarity to Zorro with a mild-mannered person donning a costume at night to fight for the right.
Others have pointed out similarities to the comic book character Batman who chose a frightening costume to strike terror into the hearts of his enemies.
"Books of adventure, suspense, and mystery always have a special appeal for me when they're about real people or based on the life of a real person, like [the Dr. Syn books] by the English author Russell Thorndike," Walt Disney told his television audiences as he introduced the first episode of the series.
Of course, he was incorrect in identifying Dr. Syn as a real person when he was clearly a fictional creation but the mythology surrounding the character over the decades has made him much like King Arthur or Robin Hood so that people assumed he was inspired by some real-life counterpart.
Walt continued: "The hero of all the Thorndike stories is one of the strangest characters who ever lived, a real-life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He lived in England nearly 200 years ago. By day he was a respected member of his community, and by night he was the greatest smuggler in the whole country. But, like Robin Hood, although he was a thorn in the side of law and order, he was a hero to the ordinary folk of his time. Because whatever he made as a smuggler, he gave away to the poor and the needy."
This philosophy was reflected in the theme song written by Terry Gilkyson and sung by the Wellingtons: "Scarecrow. The soldiers of the king feared his name. Scarecrow. The country folk all loved him just the same."
The Wellingtons were a popular folk singing group who sang the theme for Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color but may be best remembered for singing the theme song for the television series Gilligan's Island. Gilkyson had asked them to do a "demo" of the Scarecrow song for Walt to hear and he liked their interpretation and they were used for the final recording.
Gilkyson was a folk singer, composer and lyricist who, in the 1960s, did work for the Walt Disney Studio including My Heart Was An Island (Swiss Family Robinson 1960), Savage Sam and Me (Savage Sam 1963), Thomasina (The Three Lives of Thomasina 1964), The Moon-Spinners (The Moon-Spinners 1964), The Bare Necessities (The Jungle Book 1967) and Thomas O'Malley Cat (The Aristocats 1970).
His theme song for The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was highly evocative especially ending with a maniacal laugh:
"On the southern coast of England
"There's a legend people tell of days long ago
"When the great Scarecrow would ride from the jaws of hell
"And laugh with a fiendish yell.
"With his clothes all torn and tattered through the black of night he'd ride
"From the marsh to the coast like a demon ghost
"He'd show his face then hide
"And he'd laugh 'till he'd split his side."
The screenplay was by Robert Westerby, a British novelist who worked at the Disney Studio from 1961until his death in 1968.
For Disney, he also wrote screenplays for Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog (1961), The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963), The Legend of Young Dick Turpin (1966), Ballerina (1966) and The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966).
The film was directed by James Neilson. He had previously directed television episodes of the Zorro and Texas John Slaughter series and Walt Disney liked him for a number of reasons.
For Disney, he also directed The Moon-Spinners (1964), Summer Magic (1963), Johnny Shiloh (1964), Bon Voyage! (1962), Moon Pilot (1962), Mooncussers (1962) and The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967).
The story begins with very little exposition but jumps almost immediately into the action.
Part One: February 9, 1964
(This episode aired opposite The Beatles' first appearance on competitor CBS's The Ed Sullivan Show.)
King George III (Eric Pohlmann), to raise money for the treasury, has imposed huge taxes on all imports. Enraged at smuggling taking place on the Kent Sussex coast of England to circumvent his order, the King orders the cruel General Pugh (Eric Keen) and Lieutenant Philip Brackenberry (Eric Flynn) to Romney Marsh to capture the mysterious figure known as the Scarecrow who is the ringleader for this illegal action.
A reward of 1,000 pounds of gold for the Scarecrow alive or dead, or even information leading to his arrest was posted prominently in the area.
Upon Pugh's arrival, he announces his plan to press gang (kidnap able-bodied men to serve aboard ships) the men of Romney Marsh into the Royal Navy, hoping that somebody will betray the identity of the Scarecrow in order to stop the practice.
Dr. Christopher Syn (Patrick McGoohan), the Vicar of Dymchurch, who became the Scarecrow to provide his needy parishioners with goods they desperately needed as well as pay their taxes, learns of the plan and tells the men of the village to take refuge in the marshes.
The press gang comes up empty-handed, with the exception of one unsuspecting young farmer whom they manage to surprise in Mrs. Waggett's Inn when he seeks help for his wife who is about to give birth.
In retaliation, Scarecrow captures the entire press gang and offers to trade them for the farmer. However, Pugh sets a trap for the Scarecrow at the exchange point on the beach but is thwarted by the Scarecrow who evades capture, frees the farmer and returns the press gang in barrels.
Part Two: February 16, 1964
General Pugh's suspicions are aroused when a local farmer named Joe Ransley (Patrick Wymark) suddenly pays off a sizable, long-standing debt. He assumes he could only have gotten the money from the Scarecrow. Pugh threatens to throw the farmer in jail unless he reveals the identity of the Scarecrow and the other smugglers.
Syn is alerted to this situation by young John Banks (Sean Scully) who is also his disguised aide Curlew and the son of the local Squire. Through John, Syn alerts Lt. Brackenberry to stolen barrels of brandy on Ransley's property causing the farmer to be arrested.
Syn testifies at the trial on behalf of Ransley saying he was just the victim of a prank by the Scarecrow. When the contents of the barrels are tested, it is found to be nothing but seawater so Ransley is freed of all charges.
Because of his making a deal with the prosecutor Fragg to reveal the names of twenty other smugglers for a thousand pounds, Ransley is captured and taken to a barn where he is declared a traitor by the smugglers and sentenced to death by hanging.
The Scarecrow carries out the sentence. When the smugglers leave, it is revealed that it was just a ruse and that Ransley still lives. The Scarecrow had staged the phony hanging to send a warning to others to not reveal anything about the smuggling operation.
He sends Ransley out of the country and threatens that if he ever returns, the Scarecrow will actually carry out the sentence. Dr. Syn and his sexton Mr. Mipps (George Cole) put up a fake gravestone in the church cemetery stating that Ransley died May 15, 1775 of "an accident".
Part Three: February 23, 1964
Lieutenant Brackenberry has fallen in love with the daughter of Squire Banks, Kate Banks (Jill Curzon), and has come to question the methods of General Pugh. However, the Squire denies his daughter's hand in marriage to the military man.
Squire Banks' son, Harry, who has escaped after being press ganged into the Royal Navy four years earlier is hiding on his family's property. Before Dr. Syn can spirit him to freedom, he is captured along with an American revolutionary who Syn has been hiding and both men are sent to prison.
Dr. Syn discovers Brackenberry has a new outlook on the situation when he visits the local prison and hears him disagree with Pugh's actions. Syn enlists Brackenberry's help in helping the prisoners escape with several of Scarecrow's smugglers pretending to be the press gang.
Brackenberry submits a report to the King about the incident laying the blame on General Pugh. Pugh is disgraced and re-assigned. Brackenberry resigns his position and marries Kate.
The Scarecrow unites the Banks family together one last time before sending Harry and the other escaped prisoners to freedom in Holland and eventually America. The Scarecrow vows to continue his smuggling in an effort to fight against the unjust tax laws.
However, what really made The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh so memorable was the sincere and authoritative performance of the lead actor. His raspy voice and maniacal laugh as the Scarecrow is distinctly different from the soft-spoken Dr. Syn.
Patrick McGoohan had just finished his first run of the British television series Danger Man where he played international intelligence operative John Drake (and had turned down the role of James Bond in Dr. No on personal moral grounds).
The same year he also performed in the Disney feature film The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963). After the two Disney films he would return for a revised and expanded version of the Danger Man television series called Secret Agent in the United States and then later would write, direct and perform in the cult classic television show The Prisoner.
Director James Neilson wanted the Scarecrow to look like something ethereal, unusual, and terrifying. Famed British makeup artist Harry Frampton researched the character as thoroughly as possible including looking at the illustrations in the novels. The goal was to create something that looked loosely stitched that would resemble an actual scarecrow of the time period.
He tried several different things including greasepaint makeup. In fact, an early publicity still shows McGoohan with half his face as the vicar and the other half painted as the Scarecrow. Finally, Frampton decided it had to be some type of mask.
He realized that McGoohan would be in the mask for much for the film so it needed to be quick to apply and remove as well as being comfortable and allowing McGoohan to be able to breathe and speak clearly in it.
"I struck upon using a dishcloth because it was readily accessible," Frampton stated in the film pressbook. "After some stitching and painting, it took on an eerie quality. Then I gave McGoohan a shapeless slouch hat, with straw sticking out from under it.
"But after putting it together, the real straw looked too fine. It didn't photograph right. We replaced it with thicker, manufactured champagne straws, imported from France."
He cut holes for the eyes. He made a nose piece in the same fabric and dyed it black and stitched it in. He made the mouth stitching go up and down at an angle rather than straight across. It remarkably looks like a piece of burlap that would have been used for a real scarecrow.
"The makeup people took a cast of my head," said McGoohan in one of the supplements on the Disney Treasures DVD of the film, "and then they molded the mask to the cast so that wearing it was completely comfortable—nothing was glued to [my skin] so it was very comfortable."
To compliment the macabre looking mask, Frampton placed a three-foot board across McGoohan's shoulders under a dark and tattered coat. That ragged coat formed a shroud-like cape that dramatically flowed behind the Scarecrow in a ghostly fashion as he rode across the midnight marshes.
McGoohan remembered, "Dr. Syn was a kindly sort of fellow but with a will of steel, and I always saw the Scarecrow as his other persona. So neither one was dominant; they each were compatible with the other."
Interiors were filmed at England's famed Pinewood Studios, where the first James Bond adventure, Dr. No (1962), had just finished shooting. The exteriors were shot on location in many of the actual sites in the Romney Marsh area of the Dr. Syn stories.
Walt told television audiences this was done because some of the local people "still talk about him at some of the old inns there today, and you can see rooms he hid or slept in and the parish church where he preached as vicar." That was Walt's typical hyperbole to excite the viewers.
A 1937 British feature film based on the Thorndike books, titled Dr. Syn and starring George Arliss in the title role, had been filmed using many of the same sites featured in the Disney version. Hugh Attwooll who was Associate Producer of the Disney film had worked on that earlier film as well.
The beach scenes were filmed around the Camber Sands area. The exterior façade for Mrs. Waggett's Inn still exists on a city street that is part of Church Square in the city of Rye.
The abbey ruins where General Pugh waits in vain to capture the Scarecrow but only catches a cold was a historical site so the Disney crew had to follow special protections including putting boards on the ground for the horses so that the grass would not be destroyed.
Most of the night scenes were actually shot during the day with a special filter known in the film business as "day-for-night". This artificial effect actually produces an eeriness as the shadows seem to be going in the wrong direction.
A key setting in the film was the parish church where both interior and exterior scenes were shot. The church was St. Clement's, an authentic twelfth century church at Old Romney.
The aged structure was still in use as a parish church but was undergoing a structural restoration that had been halted for lack of money. Disney approached Dr. David Pope, the rector of the Romney Marsh group of parishes, to use the church and offered to pay for the completion of the restoration.
Pope not only granted permission but became a technical consultant, helping supervise the construction crews and providing his own expertise concerning authenticity. In addition, he mentored McGoohan with pointers and reference material about his role as a vicar.
A new west door was installed, a stairway was replaced, the 200-year-old gallery was repaired, and the ancient pews were renovated. The grey pews were repainted pink with black trim along with other refurbishments.
Once production was completed, Disney donated the funds needed to complete the church restoration.
Producer Bill Anderson was so happy with how the film turned out that he wanted to release it to movie theaters before it played on television but Walt refused. A 98-minute theatrical version was released in Europe in 1962 under the title Dr. Syn alias The Scarecrow.
It performed very successfully in the United Kingdom paired on a double bill with The Sword in the Stone animated feature. It was later released in America in 1975 but was cut back to 75 minutes.
In 2008, the classic Scarecrow TV episodes and the theatrical release as well as some supplemental material were issued on DVD as part of the Walt Disney Treasures series and sold out within the first month it was issued.
Gold Key produced three 32 page comic books drawn by Dan Spiegle devoted to the character from April 1964 to October 1965. The first issue adapted the film. The second issue was an original story "Beware the False Demon Ghost" and the third an original story entitled "The Scarecrow Meets King George".
For its rerun a decade later on The Wonderful World of Disney, Disney in 1975 released a Pyramid paperback novelization of the Disney theatrical version, titled Doctor Syn, Alias the Scarecrow and written by Vic Crume with illustrations by Joseph Guarino.
Oddly another film based on the Thorndike character was released in 1962. Captain Clegg (released as Night Creatures in the United States) was produced by Hammer Film Productions and starred Peter Cushing as the vicar with a dual identity.
Dr. Syn had to be renamed Dr. Blyss because Disney claimed exclusive rights to the Thorndike stories and the name of the lead character at the time. The film's story is similar to the 1937 film but has a more accurate ending. The smugglers and their horses are attired as Marsh Phantoms looking like glow-in-the-dark skeletons.
For many Disney fans, myself included, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was an unforgettable Disney film treasure. In fact, in 2005, another big fan, artist Bret Blevins, illustrated new comic stories of the character for the Disney Adventures magazine even teaming him in one story with Captain Jack Sparrow since Syn was also a pirate.
Perhaps this coming Halloween the Scarecrow may make another appearance in some Disney celebration.