Saturday, September 10, 2011

Disney and Hammer Take on the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

The likelihood of Walt Disney and Hammer Films--Britain's "House of Horror"--adapting the same novel would appear to be remote. Of course, Disney did turn Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame into an animated musical, so a similar version of Dracula is not out of the question. Still, there's no use speculating on a Disney-Hammer connection, because it's already occurred--back in 1963. That's when both studios mounted colorful screen adaptations of Doctor Syn: A Smuggler Tale of the Romney Marsh by Russell Thorndike (also spelled Thorndyke).

Published in 1914, this first of seven Dr. Syn novels took place in the late 1700s and featured a premise similar to the earlier Scarlet Pimpernel and later Zorro. By day, Christopher Syn is the vicar of Dymchurch, a farming community located adjacent to the Romney Marsh in Kent, England. At night, Dr. Syn transforms into the masked Scarecrow, a notorious smuggler who has long evaded the King's revenue collectors. The profits from his smuggling operations put food on the poor villagers' tables, while Syn keeps nothing for himself.

The first film version of Dr. Syn appeared in 1937, with George Arliss making his final screen appearance in the role. Alas, I haven't seen this version, which sounds promising based solely on the involvement of Margaret Lockwood and director Roy William Neill (a "B" movie auteur responsible for classics such as the Sherlock Holmes pic The Scarlet Claw).

Cushing as Parson Blyss.
This lengthly introduction brings us to the Hammer version, Captain Clegg, which was retitled Night Creatures for its U.S. release. Considered the most faithful adaptation of Thorndike's novels, it cleverly integrates the vicar's backstory, explaining his past as a notorious pirate known as Captain Clegg, who escaped the hangman's noose and became a man of the cloth. Taking the name Parson Blyss (instead of Dr. Syn), he preaches to his congregation on Sunday and heads a band of smugglers the rest of the week. No one knows his true identity except for his right-hand man, the coffin-maker Mipps, and the local squire's son, Harry.

Cushing as Captain Clegg
in costume.
With a reward on his head, Blyss strives to keep nosey locals off the marsh at night by outfitting his gang in glowing skeleton costumes with skull masks. Despite Blyss's efforts, his smuggling success attracts the King's attention and Captain Collier, a Naval officer, is dispatched to Dymchurch to deal with the "phantom riders."

With a running time of 80 minutes, Captain Clegg is a compact tale that sacrifices character development in favor of a brisk pace. The casting of the always reliable Peter Cushing as Blyss/Clegg helps significantly. Even if we don't really understand what makes Clegg tick, Cushing excels at playing the charming local parson in one scene and transforming into the stern, demanding Clegg in the next.

Yvonne Romain as Imogene.
The supporting cast does what it can with sketchily-written parts. Michael Ripper, a Hammer regular, has one of his biggest (and best) roles as Mipps. Oliver Reed has little to do as Harry, but his charisma is a definite plus. While he and nominal female lead Yvonne Romain lack chemistry, they certainly make a photogenic couple. Interestingly, Romain played Reed's mother in 1960's Curse of the Werewolf, though the two actors shared no screen time together.

In the end, Captain Clegg is a solid costume adventure with some visual flair (the marsh phantoms are eerie) and a strong lead performance from Cushing. What it lacks, though, is a good song...

Patrick McGoohan as Dr. Syn.
Which leads us to The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, a three-part series originally broadcast on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color (though it was edited and released theatrically in Great Britain as Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow). Patrick McGoohan stars as Dr. Christopher Syn, whose buccaneer background has been eliminated in this version. However, Dr. Syn--in his guise as The Scarecrow--is still a smuggler and, when you get down to it, a rebel. It's a different take for a Disney tale, although the plot emphasizes Dr. Syn's concerns for the plight of his parishioners who suffer at the hands of royal tyranny. (Less we forget, Disney had already made a Zorro TV series and turned outlaw Rob Roy into a "Highland rogue.")

And McGoohan as The Scarecrow.
In its original form, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is naturally episodic and a bit redundant (there are lots of scenes of Scarecrow riding against the dark-blue skyline). Being a Disney production, no one dies or gets tortured (as in Captain Clegg) and a juvenile co-star has been added (Sean Scully as John Banks, aka The Curlew).

The supporting cast is first-rate, with British stalwarts such as Michael Hordern, Patrick Wymark, and Geoffrey Keen. But what makes Scarecrow memorable is the marvelous McGoohan, a genuinely spooky Scarecrow mask, and a song forever etched into my memory. However, for those who have never heard the Scarecrow ballad, I've attached a clip from the show's opening. You also get to see the marvelous costume and hear that downright disturbing Scarecrow cackle (I don't think it's McGoohan).

There are several re-edited versions of The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. If you're a true fan, look for the Disney Treasures edition, which has some awesome bonus features--but may cost around $120 since it's out of print!

Do I have a preference between the Disney and Hammer adaptations of Scarecrow? I'm a big fan of Cushing and McGoohan and both films feature colorful scenery, spooky night riders, and an entertaining premise courtesy of Mr. Thorndike. If Disney's version gets a slight nod, it's just because that song is so darn catchy.


  1. What an awesome post about a remarkable Robin Hood-like character! The story features the disturbing protocol of getting men to "enlist" in the King's army by beating them senseless and taking them away forceably. One certainly does not feel compassion for the wealthy magistrate. Both Peter Cushing and Patrick McGoohan are fabulous in their roles. I love the setting in the Cushing movie that enables one to go back and forth from the coffin shop directly to the church.

    The Disney show brought back a memory from my youth. Back in the days where there was only one small television in the house, I remember that "The Scarecrow from Romney Marsh" was aired opposite my beloved "The Wizard of Oz" one Sunday night. I was looking forward to seeing "Oz" but my brothers all wanted to watch "Scarecrow." I think they finally convinced me that I would be able to see another Scarecrow by watching the Disney entry. It certainly wasn't the kindly fellow I loved so well but it was an exciting show and did feature a great song.

    This was a most excellent post and the photos, including the book dust jacket, are quite good. I of course had to play the clip to hear that memorable song again, too. Well done, Rick!

  2. Excellent post, comparing the pros and cons of the 2 films. McGoohan may have it in the 'looks' category, but Cushing has such wonderful subtlety - hard to choose! The Disney version seems a bit grim for younger audiences.

  3. This was an enjoyable read. I'm a fan of the Hammer version, which I know as NIGHT CREATURES. You mentioned the "brisk pace" in lieu of developing characters, and I agree, but I think the movie also has a strange merging of genres: it's like a thriller, but with some drama and a little bit of romance and suspense. That approach makes it appealing. Well, that, and Peter Cushing. I think it's hilarious that Disney, known as a family studio, and Hammer, best known for its gothic horror, made movies from the same source.

  4. Amazing post! I've never seen any of the other adaptations and I probably should, but I love the episodic Disney version.

  5. Like Alex, I haven't seen the other adaptations but own the Disney version, which was released a few years ago that includes the three separate episodes and a single movie that edited the episodes together for theatrical release. It's well cast and well acted, a fine effort from Disney.

  6. Thanks all for the marvelous comments. For those who haven't seen CAPTAIN CLEGG (aka NIGHT CREATURES), I recommend it; Cushing is quite good in the lead. Sark and GOM, SCARECROW OF ROMNEY MARSH is a little dark for Disney, but that's what makes it so appealing. McGoohan was a perfect choice; he also made THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA for Disney around the same time. Haven't seen that in years and now want to (in the interim, I've become a Susan Hampshire fan). Toto, I also remember when OZ and SCARECROW were broadcast opposite each other. Both were brainy types, but the similarities end there!

  7. Rick, I'm a little late! Do you know I have never seen ANY of these! I can't imagine why -- movies with that kind of premise draw me like a moth to flame. Somehow I missed them. I've go to see McGoohan's -- he is a favorite actor and I like him in anything. The clip looks great and the mask and cackle are perfect. I can see why that song is memorable. It's going to run through my head all day!

    I adore Peter Cushing, and must see his as well. Don't you just love the names of the people and places? The Dymchurch, Christopher Syn, Parson Blyss, Mipps the coffin maker. I am really interested in the books, and hope that the library has them. Wonderful post, Rick!

  8. The reason most of you have not seen this marvelous story is that "Disney" no longer has the late night Vault. In fact, the Disney Channel does not show anything older than week ago last Thursday.

  9. I remember Scarecrow of Romney Marsh making a big impact on me, especially McGoohan's macabre get-up. I was a relative latecomer to Hammer films in general, so I saw Captain Clegg many years later. I'm sure the U.S. distributor thought the combination of Cushing and the title Night Creatures would reel in horror fans. :)

  10. Scarecrow versus Headless Horseman.