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Moral ambiguity on the Romney Marsh
on 8 July 2015
The idea is utterly intriguing - a bad man becomes a good man after facing his own mortality and then finds that he can only effectively be a good man by utilising those very skills which made his fortune in his days as a villain. In Russell Thorndyke's original novel, the first of his Dr. Syn books, the moral reverberations of this set-up are, rather shockingly, ignored. It's unlikely, indeed, that Thorndyke ever even noticed them, and his yarn is simply a "jolly" swashbuckler peopled by characters considerably less appealing than he seems to have thought they were, and further marred by a quite appalling, and casual, racism. To a modern reader, it's a very hard read indeed, and this Hammer version (which changes Dr. Syn's name to Blyss) is altogether more interesting. As so often in Hammer movies, the society against which the villain-hero moves is an utterly corrupt one based on savage inequality, brutishness and hypocrisy; the agents of the crown use beatings and torture as a matter of course, and, in opposing them, Dr. Blyss is truly trying to serve his God. Peter Cushing's performance as this richly ambiguous figure is one of his finest, with Blyss's enjoyment of his verbal duels with the king's agent (a role in which Patrick Allen is admirably charmless) suggesting that the doctor has, for all his saintly selflessness towards the poor of his parish, not lost those qualities of ruthlessness and daring which once made him the most feared buccaneer on the seven seas. The film is a very smooth entertainment, slickly but unshowily made, and provocative as well as amusing.