Films relating to the Dr Syn theme

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Dr Syn (1937)


This was the original film. London Films Ltd, bought the rights to the Dr Syn book from Thorndike for reportedly a mere pittance. The film starred George Arliss as Syn. Arliss was coming to the end of his career in films and this was I suppose a fitting finale. In this film though Syn survived the Malutto's attempt to kill him. The film does not cover much on the scarecrow activity, it would be difficult in only 80 minutes anyway. It is well shot and a classic that has been released on VHS by several of the online film stores. Though now it seems it is unavaible ? I think I paid about 15 USD . Below is a picture of George Arliss. His real name was George Augustus Andrews-Arliss.


Dr. Syn (1938): A Review. Review by Tom Matthes
It seems Hollywood can never get enough of the charismatic rogue, a hero who is half devil and half angel. Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, and Robert Newton are among the movie actors whose fortunes were made by playing the likes of Rhett Butler of Gone With the Wind, Rick Martin of Casablanca, and Long John Silver of Treasure Island. Add to this mix George Arliss in Dr. Syn. This was a switch of roles for the great stage and screen star. He was the first British actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor with the title role of Disraeli. For his final movie performance, Arliss switched from his normally elegant, historical roles to play a mysterious old vicar of Dymchurch , a town on the Southern English coast that still exists.

Fans of Walt Disney's version of the Russell Thorndyke story, made in 1962, are in for a shock from the Arliss version. The older movie is vastly inferior to Disney's Technicolor print, although its grainy black and white is fitting for the story's intrigue. More significant is the difference in characterization. Instead of Disney's masked, dashing, laconic, and equestrian vicar Arliss gives us a frail-looking old parson who is alternately kindly, clever, deceptive, intimidating and enraged, a truly complex role challenging enough for Arliss.

This original screen version of Dr. Syn could not be made today. Dr. Syn and his antagonist, Royal Navy Captain Collier, each have their good and bad points. But the villain of the piece is a muscular mulatto with no redeeming features. This bigoted dramatization is a contemporary of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (Thorndyke's original novel about Dr. Syn was published the year after the Griffith classic was released), which also featured a ruthless (albeit educated) mulatto. In Dr. Syn, the mulatto is a rapist who was marooned on a desert island by Captain Nathaniel Clegg and his pirates  after his ears and tongue were cut off.

Captain Collier, in pursuit of Clegg's ship, the Imogene, rescued the mulatto; thereafter keeping him chained and led like an attack dog. When Collier gives up the sea to lead revenue detachments in search of smugglers, he brings the mulatto along, with his keen nose for wines and liquors.

Twenty years later, Collier leads his men to Dymchurch, where Captain Clegg's grave is in the same churchyard where Dr. Syn is the pastor, offering a good word for rich and poor parishioners alike, although he can't resist teasing the tippling local physician about his claims that phantom horsemen are riding through Romney Marsh at night. Collier learns of the ghost story and begins to investigate, while the mulatto discovers that Clegg's coffin is empty and escapes custody to seek revenge.

We soon learn that Dr. Syn is really Clegg and the mysterious "Scarecrow," who leads Clegg's former pirates in a secret smuggling operation, using a real scarecrow as a signaling device and a place for concealment at night. While his subordinates are getting rich from the profits, Dr. Syn gives his share to the poor or for civic projects like a new schoolhouse. His double role also allows Syn/Clegg to serve as legal guardian of his beautiful daughter Imogene, whom Dr. Syn fears will have her heart broken by the squire's bachelor son, who is equally afraid Imogene will break his heart.

Dr. Syn considers himself to have been reformed when, as Clegg, he survived being hanged when friends used acid to weaken the ropes. Afterward he took up his religious and smuggling work. And, as the Scarecrow, he orders his smugglers to avoid violence, using the legend of the phantoms and various ruses (such as switching road signs to confuse anyone tracking his riders) to maintain their cover. His smuggling takes money from the king and diverts it to fighting local poverty, which Syn blames on heavy taxes.

But Syn's reformation is an illusion, at least in some ways. While he lies freely to cover up the local smuggling (it works; the local squire laughs off the phantom sightings), Syn's Scarecrow has a reputation for ruthlessness that his pirate band still respects 20 years after Clegg was hanged. When one of his smugglers tries to blackmail him, the gentle pastor almost kills him in a fight, then blames the mulatto for the assault. When Captain Collier puts the unconscious blackmailer in custody for questioning, Syn tells Mipps, his chief lieutenant, that the questioning must not take place. While Syn dines with Collier, who is starting to unravel the mystery, the blackmailer is spirited away and hanged on the marsh. When a seemingly angry Syn asks Mipps "Who did this?" the reply, in a whispered, mafia-like growl, is "How should I know?" ("Who will rid me of this priest?" demanded a medieval English king, after which one of his listeners murdered St. Thomas a Beckett). At the inquest, Syn, this man of the cloth and a faith based on love and forgiveness, is unable to talk about the mulatto without a tone of rage.

So how does George Arliss manage to turn this complex character into a hero? The only way to find out is to see the movie. Few actors could pull it off, but Arliss does and not by accident. He could play ruthless, conniving villains when he wanted to (he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for portraying an evil rajah in the Green Goddess, losing the award to himself in his portrayal of Disraeli that same year). The Arliss genius also included playing characters that get into trouble by being too clever by half, then wiggle out of the dilemma. In this story Dr. Syn becomes overconfident in his battle of wits with the equally clever captain.

Disney's "Scarecrow" is a thrilling adventure yarn, but his target audience was children. Arliss's Dr. Syn is simultaneously a romantic adventure and morality play for adults who can tolerate its lack of political correctness and its inferior print. It has a fine cast, most notably Margaret Lockwood as the maiden struggling with a romance that defies traditional English class lines, not to mention her unknown pirate lineage. But it works because it bears the final stamp of Arliss greatness.