For some, it’s Superman or Batman. Being an old Marvelmaniac, you’d think for me it would be Spider-Man or Doctor Strange or the Fantastic Four or even Howard the Duck — all of whom I love, don’t get me wrong.
But they are not my pick for First Among Pulp Heroes. Not even Popeye or Doc Savage gets that honor in my book. Nope.
The very first superhero that I ever encountered, and the one that still stands as the Leader of Them All, is Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.
His modus operandi, smuggling goods from France in order to benefit the poor families along England’s coast, was very much in vein of Robin Hood, but as you might expect The Scarecrow was a good deal spookier in an era where “dark heroes” weren’t a dime a dozen. He was doing the Batman thing long before Batman, doing the Shadow thing long before The Shadow. By day, Doctor Syn was a parish Vicar preaching the bible: by night he was a ruthless smuggler who terrified English soldiers in the guise of The Scarecrow, a devil astride a glowing, fiery horse.
You’d be forgiven to believe that, like Robin Hood, Dr. Syn was an actual folk legend. In fact he was created in 1915 by writer/actor Russell Thorndike — who made the rookie mistake of killing off his hero (in a way that left no room for fudging) in the first book. From then on, through a total of seven novels, Thorndike was limited to writing about Syn’s colorful past. Clearly, at least at the outset, Thorndike did not know what he had … something that also manifests itself in the oblique way that he brushes aside the adventure sequences that should have been his bread and butter. As a pulp novelist, Thorndike was a man with a lot to learn; but then, the whole genre was in its infancy. It would be two years before Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars.
I first learned about Dr. Syn on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Disney had wartime assets that were frozen in England: it was only natural and sensible that he use the money to make movies on British soil with British subjects and all-British cast and crew members. One of these was The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, starring a young Patrick McGoohan in the title role.The Prisoner was not yet even a gleam in McGoohan’s eye.
It was the early sixties. I was no more than four years old. Even though my exposure to Dr. Syn was limited to three successive Sunday Nights in the late summer (and a single re-run a couple of years later) The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was such exciting viewing that I was still drawing pictures of the character years later, during sixth-grade classes (in school, as elsewhere, I lived in my own little world, my own mental bubble) — long after I had learned about Superman and Batman.
McGoohan gave a robust and virile performance, as you might expect, taking real pleasure at stonewalling pompous officers in his role as the town vicar, then donning rags and an eerie mask and tearing through the night on horseback, cackling like a lunatic.
It was delightful.
A few years back the Disney Company at last issued the entire three-part series (along with the recut theatrical movie version) on DVD, and this was one of those very rare occasions where something that I loved as a child not only lived up to my memories of it, but exceeded them. Despite a theme song that’s hokey by today’s standards, the show is pulp adventure at its very best. With its gorgeous (and authentic) locations, its clearly-delineated characters, exceptionally moody photography and top-notch performances all around, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh stakes a fair claim to being an unsung classic of the genre.
So naturally when I learned that there are two other film versions of Doctor Syn’s adventures, I had to track them down. Both are British made. The first, 1937’s Dr. Syn, featuring George Arliss in the title role, is truer to the details of Thorndike’s first novel (although it wisely leaves Syn among the living as the credits roll), but tepid in every other respect. Although it makes an attempt at creating a mood, Syn appears in Scarecrow drag just once, at a distance; meanwhile, the stakes seem remarkably low throughout. Arliss was an old man when he made the picture, which helps nothing. One gets the feeling that it played better in 1937 than it does today.
Hammer filmed the story again in 1962 as Captain Clegg (Night Creatures in the USA), with Peter Cushing as the bizarrely renamed “Doctor Blyss” — presumably this was done to distinguish their film from the Disney version, which was shooting at virtually the same time. The director, Peter Scott, appears to have watched the 1937 film closely, to have structured his version along the same lines and to have lifted its best bits, while inserting Hammer’s typical emphasis on sadism and sex.
It misses the mark by a wide margin. Syn takes an even more passive role in this version, leaving Oliver Reed to do all of the Night Riding, which again is sadly limited and under-played. When Cushing takes a harpoon to the back at the end of the picture (still milder than what happens to Syn in the book), it almost comes as a relief to know that there will be no sequels.
Say what you will about The Walt Disney Company and its many egregious sins against movie-making — but Walt Disney the man was a real showman who instinctively knew how to make pictures that would connect with an audience. He cast the best actors that he could find, employed the best art directors (his version of Syn is much more visually dynamic than any of the others), and was never above taking what worked from a book, and then chucking the rest — as witness Mary Poppins.
The three Syn movies are inevitably of a piece: all recognizably the same, yet all wildly different from each other. That the Disney version actually shames the others may or may not prove anything. But by creating a straight-faced and straight-laced adventure yarn about a masked hero that took itself seriously and provided real thrills, Disney succeeded in a genre that defied Hollywood for decades before and since.