Dr. Syn at the movies

Dr. Syn (1935) (I haven't actually seen this movie; the following review is taken from amazon.com, where they sell this film for around $15). Tom Matthes (tmatthes@vais.net) from Springfield, Virginia , June 7, 1998. 5 out of 5 stars "British Navy captain tracks aging pirate-turned-clergyman. What would Long John Silver be like in old age, if his better half had won out? This 1930's British movie version of Russell Thorndike's novel gives us a clue. George Arliss, one of the greats of the British stage and an early star of Hollywood talkies, gives an excellent final performance in the title role. It's a switch for Arliss, who won an Oscar in the title role of "Disraeli" and usually played similar, elegant roles. Never afraid of a new role, he boldly quits the silver screen as an aging buccaneer! Dr. Syn is a retired pirate the world believes to have been hanged. In fact, he has taken up a second career as the parish pastor of Dymchurch, near the real-world Romney Marsh on the southern English coast. But Syn has brought some of his pirate crew along and together, they are secretly smuggling. Syn gives his smuggling profits for a new schoolhouse and for the town's poor. "I've used the money better than the king and I haven't had to pay any duties," he brags. But there's also that pirate side. "I've known the Scarecrow (Syn's smuggling code name) longer than any of you," says his chief lieutenant to the rest of the gang, "and sometimes I'm mortally afraid of him." You'll find this drama well-acted all around, including a class-crossed romance for Margaret Lockwood in the role of Syn's daughter (who doesn't know her father is Dr. Syn, advising her not to hope the squire's dashing son will wed her). The Navy captain who stumbles his way toward the truth, learning to appreciate the ironic name of the town, is amusing, but able. He fights for the law, yet somehow lets you keep rooting for Arliss/Syn. The heavy of the tale, a mute, violent mulatto, is politically incorrect - but we see how he's been used by both sides so badly and feel sympathy for him. There's intrigue, betrayal and suspense. The story is well-paced and witty. A fine yarn for all viewers over the age of ten and a fine thespian finale for Arliss." (My comments: plot sounds good, I don't know the cast. They don't seem to have managed the spooky disguises aspect very well. No guarantee of a happy ending either. Hopefully, they let the Scarecrow escape!) Dr. Syn, alias the Scarecrow (1961?) aka `The Disney Version' (The movie poster is at upper right. This originally aired as a three-part TV miniseries in 1961, under the title "Scarecrow of Romney Marsh". It seems to've released to American theatres in 1962, under the title "Dr. Syn, alias...". This version runs 129 minutes and can also be bought at amazon.com. It was released in Europe in 1963). It's been a loooong time since I saw this one (put it this way: I rented the BetaMax version), so I'm constructing this review based on my own memories and those of family members. Okay, here goes: Patrick Magoohan (The Prisoner, or the evil king from Braveheart, depending on your generation) is Dr. Syn/Scarecrow. The movie makes no reference to the piracy back-story. The Scarecrow is primarily a Robin Hood figure; his smuggling is intended to help the locals and make a political statement. There's a rather silly attempt to tie the American Revolution into this, though it's not quite as badly managed as in the book "Christopher Syn". Syn tutors the squire's son, who stumbles onto the pastor's secret identity. Eventually, the Scarecrow must smuggle the young man his girl friend to Ellis Island, er, America. Magoohan turns in a good performance, but he's not what I would have chosen for the role. Too handsome for one thing, too stoic for another. It's impossible to believe that he has the energy to be the fairly busy vicar by day and the extremely busy smuggler by night. The actor playing Mipps is too ruffianly in appearance to pass for a sexton. I seem to recall the smuggler sequences as being reasonably spooky. Also, I think Syn survives to the end without `reforming' or permanently discarding the Scarecrow identity. Special Brownie points to Disney for shooting in England, with a mainly British cast. Night Creatures (1962) aka `The Hammer Version' {originally released in England as "Captain Clegg". The movie poster is at the lower right. This film turns up on British TV occasionly, but seems to be completely unavailable in the US). This one presents special problems. I have never seen it, nor does there seem to be a detailed review on the web. I'll repeat what I do know about it. People who have seen it rate it about 2 1/2 stars out of four, as a rule, perhaps 3 1/2 if they're at all partial to Hammer films. It deviates radically from the books, partly due to the usual Hammer approach, partly (I think) to distinguish it from the Disney version, which would have been airing on TV while this movie was in production. The plot has a group of shipwrecked sailors being washed up near Dymchurch (or whatever the heck the script calls the town). They discover that Romney Marsh seems to be haunted by skeletons and a ghostly scarecrow. The viewer knows that these are the smugglers. Their leader is the mild-seeming Doctor Blyss (note: they changed the name, but kept the y-for-i spelling gimmick. Interesting set of priorities). Blyss mainly wants to turn a profit by smuggling, but seems to take a genuine interest in the town's well-being. Incidentally, he isn't the Scarecrow (%$@%!?!). The guy dressed as the scarecrow is another character altogether. In fact, the main purpose of the scarecrow is as a look-out. This definitely defeats the purpose of making a movie out of the Syn books, but it doesn't necessarily prevent it from being entertaining. As in the 1935 version, events come to a head when a mulatto from the sailors's group recognizes the vicar as the notorious and supposedly dead Captain Clegg, who had said mulatto's tongue cut out. I get the impression that Clegg/Blyss is killed off at the end. This film casts Michael Ripper as Mipps, Peter Cushing as Clegg/Blyss, and Oliver Reed as the scarecrow. I've seen these gentlemen in other roles, so I might as well give my opinion of the casting. Ripper would make a good Mipps - smart, funny and loyal. Cushing has (had?) certain obvious qualifications for the part of the pirate-parson: a strong resemblance to Thorndike's "slender, elegant figure with the long, intellectual face", an impressive acting range, the character's restless energy and the fact of being born and bred - like Syn and his creator - in Kent. His drawbacks are equally obvious: who in his right mind would accept this guy as a pirate? Besides, the chap tended to avoid roles requiring monster make-up; it may be his fault that the scarecrow and the vicar are separate characters. Oliver Reed I tend to dislike, and I deplore the very existence of his character. Other complaints include the film's apparently very harsh attitude towards Clegg himself. It omits the rather complex Syn-becomes-pirate-to-find-kidnapped-wife backstory. It also leaves out the fact that Syn's original motivation in becoming the Scarecrow was to keep the local smugglers - including his sexton and many of his parishoners - from getting caught. The basic impression from the stories is of a gifted and seemingly noble person who will stoop to ANYTHING to protect those he cares for. In Night Creatures, the vicar's a charming but mercenary and sadistic creature, apparently about to get his just deserts.

Fine work my men Night-riders have passed this way!