Alternate Best Actor 1963: Patrick McGoohan in Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow

Patrick McGoohan did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Dr. Christopher Syn aka the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh in Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is a very entertaining 3 part adventure mini-series about a pastor who moonlights as a costumed smuggler to thwart the government of King George III and help his impoverished community. I will say the film cut, which qualifies McGoohan for this review, isn’t exactly the most inspired cut, though the good qualities of the miniseries are still quite evident, however I’d recommend the three episode version.

This film is technically one the early instances of a masked hero film, though of course there have been others as well a la The Scarlet Pimpernel, a rare exception compared to the modern use of the masked hero. Now the Scarecrow isn’t quite a superhero per se, but he isn’t too far off of one. This is especially as one could almost see him as a bit of a 1700’s England Batman. This is as the masked hero element is strongly emphasized here with the separation of personality between that character and the man who “plays” him. In this we have McGoohan delivering the best Batman performance that has been given, however he is not playing Batman, but nonetheless the qualities of his work realizes that specific duality, if not a bit more. In that we have the monster created that is the Scarecrow, who is the face of the opposition to England, and the known face to his forces made up of local men, except for his fellow masked cohort (or sidekicks) of Mr. Mipps aka Hellspite (George Cole) and the young squire’s son John aka Curlew who are part of that duplicity.

McGoohan’s portrayal of the Scarecrow begins with his scratchy, almost screeching, voice that is quite befitting of a living Scarecrow. Scarecrow, in that Batman way, is more evocative of fear than of heroism despite his actions and McGoohan’s portrayal captures this. His voice that almost of a living monster capable of great misdeeds, but chooses to help the poor. McGoohan’s facial work is obviously rather limited given the mask, however one can still see his eyes and in this regard McGoohan does not waste his one place for expression. Obvious technically minor however his eyes are with this nearly dead, haunting quality, that again evokes his Scarecrow as an otherworldly being than simply an outlaw leader. I love that McGoohan presses this point, as much as one can for a generally family friendly film anyways, in creating the idea of a genuine menace within the role. The most notable in this when Scarecrow goes about scaring a traitor to exile. McGoohan is genuinely eerie in his piercing eyes, and cold way of telling the coward “You’re dead”, followed by that wonderfully mad laugh of his that is more fitting of a creature than a man.

This is of course in sharp contrast to the secret identity of the Scarecrow, in the pastor Christopher Syn. McGoohan already passes the first test in that if you obviously didn’t no he played both parts you’d never consider it. He is wholly dissimilar with McGoohan using his oh so wonderfully refined voice of his as Syn. McGoohan accentuates that though in creating really two parts within the idea of Dr. Syn. This is as McGoohan, much like the public/private Bruce Wayne featured in some portrayals of Batman, crafts variations within the two sides of Syn. The Syn where he meets with his two inner circle members, and the public persona of the pastor. Now in both McGoohan brings such a dignified manner however he uses them in two different ways. The public pastor actually could be fairly straight forward, however even in this McGoohan finds a bit of variation. This in moments of genuinely attending his flock McGoohan delivers a calm warmth in his role, with his eyes accentuating a man who cares for these people, even if he’s technically deceiving them. This however is only when Syn is interacting directly with the rather unknowing but respectful congregation of his.

One of my favorite aspects of McGoohan’s work is as the public persona of Syn as he interacts with those he has a less favorable view of. This is chiefly when he directly speaks with the officials of the crown especially the film’s chief villain General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen). McGoohan plays these moments with this certain affable distance, conveying the idea of Syn as essentially an unknowing party when it comes to the politics of the land. This with just the utmost innocence in his delivery, mostly, as the bit of nuance in these moments I absolutely love. This is as McGoohan delivers this sharp wit, as the seemingly guiltless man, with just the most impeccable deliveries. My favorites of these being his moment of dismissing Pugh’s accusations that his congregation is helping the smuggler with “you have no proof of that” that he manages to show Syn jesting a bit at the General’s expense while being apparently entirely truthful in this. The same feature being realized in a moment of just wishing the general good health after he’s caught a cold. McGoohan is cutting in his oh so assuring way with the words of a goodnatured citizen, but his eyes capture this glint of mischievousness that brings such an enjoyable humor within the ruse of the character.

The final “face” is the real face of Syn, who is again is based on this quiet dignity though in a different way than the meek pastor we see at his services. McGoohan is fantastic in capturing this unique power in his presence, through his calm certainty. Within this McGoohan conveys what is this overpowering intelligence within the character that is captivating in every moment of his work, particularly when he is outlining a part of his plans. There is this force of personality that he delivers but what I love about it is how McGoohan does so with this grace and ease in his demeanor. In the one major moment of summing of his philosophy McGoohan is incredible, not through some grandiose speech but rather these sincere and direct words of man of unshakable convictions fueled by a pointed, though unassuming, passion. McGoohan shows a man who knows precisely what he is doing and almost always has a plan to make things right. McGoohan however doesn’t over do this and does ensure there is still a humanity within the character, even with the certain mystery within Syn in this film. There’s a great moment, where I’ll cheat since it is cut out of the theatrical cut, where is partially belated by the young John for not showing a great deal of emotion. McGoohan is outstanding in this moment of just the ever so slight exasperation towards his current problem, actually does portray the emotions within the man. Syn follows the line with telling John that it is essential always keep one’s head, and in that moment McGoohan brilliantly captures the internalization of concern while also presenting the exact method of Syn. McGoohan, as much as he so effectively realizes the force of the man defined by a careful will and insight, he never forgets the man within that. These are but the moments of slight disruption though as McGoohan is simply spectacular in creating this marvelous hero where every moment of his work is on point. McGoohan finds something different to explore within each side of the man while still crafting it as an extension of a single man with a mission. McGoohan shows us in proper measure the strengths of the confident Dr. Syn, but again within that nuance creating enough of a man in an honest struggle each time. This is again, I’ll restate, this is the greatest performance as Batman in terms of the needed virtues of such a role, even though he doesn’t play that part. He owns this role in giving such consistently entertaining and compelling portrayal of his masked hero that I wish the miniseries could’ve had at least a few more installments.

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