The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

I came across the above item in an old TV Guide recently, and it blew my mind. This item advertising a network showing of Disney’s The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1964) was from the early 70s — it’s likely the first time I saw the film was this very showing, and I’m not sure I’ve seen it since. For a while I had it mixed up in my memory with Johnny Tremain (1957), but I went back and re-watched Johnny Tremain a few years ago, and realized that though they’re both 18th century stories, the settings of the films are quite different (the colonies in the latter case, the mother country in the former).

What makes The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh memorable was the uncanny impression made by the titular character. Several people have told me the same thing. In fact, that’s all anyone remembers about the film — the images of this scary, night-mare inducing scarecrow. Scarecrows are a Hallowe’en thing after all. One of the most memorable of the early Batman villains was The Scarecrow. Only The Wizard of Oz has a friendly, huggable scarecrow character. Normally, they tend to scare humans as well as crows.

At any rate, re-familiarizing myself with this old show sent me down an interesting rabbit hole. It also starts with British actor and author Russell Thorndike (1885-1972), whose birthday it is today. He was the brother of better remembered actress Sybil Thorndike, muse of George Bernard Shaw, and like his sis, appeared in films and stage plays, though not as frequently as her.

Thorndike’s main claim to literary fame was a series of novels concerning a certain Doctor Syn, which were published from 1915 through 1944. Christopher Syn has much in common with swashbuckling heroes like the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro in that he leads a double life. By day he is a mild-mannered vicar at a country church; by night he is The Scarecrow, the leader of a gang of smugglers and pirates. And, in order to terrorize his enemies, he dresses the part. The gang do their dirty work in the dead of night in the titular Romney Marsh (the name of a place, not a person). How is such a man a hero, you wonder? He’s a crook! Well, there’s an age-old tradition of this. In this context he’s a good guy because he’s a freedom fighter — the smuggling is done to evade unjust taxes imposed by crooked and tyrannous government officials. So there’s that. And other times he just uses his identity to punish genuine bad guys or those who’ve wronged him. It’s a fascinating scenario because it allows you to identify the British origins of certain themes we think of as characteristically American. It goes back to Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, outlaw heroes.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh initially aired as a three-part mini-series on Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, and was then edited down for theatrical release. It starred Patrick McGoohan as the title character — my earliest exposure to one of my favorite actors. There was an earlier film of the story in 1937, but the Disney one has eclipsed its memory. At any rate, it’s been fun reconnecting with it after all these years.

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