Friday, June 15, 2007

Dr. Syn

I've been watching a VHS (yes, I'm still that primitive) of Disney's "Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow" this week. I saw it at the drive-in when I was in grade school and loved it! It was a double feature with "Treasure Island" and (in my young eyes) blew Long John Silver away.

For one thing, Dr. Syn features a masked hero and I've always been a sucker for those. He's not just some good in a cape and mask either. The Scarecrow is weird, spooky, and impressive in a way very few masked characters are. The idea that this fearsome creature was a force for justice was inexpressably cool.

The other thing that really attracted me to the character was that he was a clergyman. Church was starting to be an important part of my life at that age and the combination of wise pastor and masked outlaw hero was a potent combination. I never questioned the idea that a minister could be motivated to put on a spooky costume and fight for justice. In some ways it made more sense than having a millionaire playboy of a bored caballero do the same thing.

It took me many years to track down the print stories that inspired the movie but I did. I was in graduate school before I found a novel by an American author named Buchanan titled CHRISTOPHER SYN. It was many more years before I ran across the series of novels by Russell Thorndike. These really filled out Syn's odd personality from his early years to his career as a pirate, to his dual career as vicar of Dymchurch and swashbuckling masked smuggler.

There are two other movies, both predating the Disney version. "Doctor Syn" (1937) tells the story of Syn's final days when his piratical past finally catches up to him. "Captain Clegg" (1962) is a remake of "Doctor Syn" with Peter Cushing replacing George Arliss in the title role. I've never seen the Arliss version but liked the Cushing version quite a bit. I've always enjoyed the actor's work. Still, for my money, Disney's movie is by far the best. It shows syn in the prime of life outwitting the King's men at every turn, and Partick McGoohan is perfect as the character. He projects the cool intellect and the core of decency perfectly. Dr. Syn is kind and mild, but you never doubt that he is a man of integrity. The Scarecrow is frightening, but we see a glimmer of mercy and compassion shine through his fierce guise.

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