Heaven's Gate (film)
|Directed by||Michael Cimino|
|Produced by||Joann Carelli|
|Written by||Michael Cimino|
|Music by||David Mansfield|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|Box office||$3.5 million|
Heaven's Gate is a 1980 American epic Western film written and directed by Michael Cimino. Loosely based on the Johnson County War, it portrays a fictional dispute between land barons and European immigrants in Wyoming in the 1890s. The cast includes Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotten, Geoffrey Lewis, David Mansfield, Richard Masur, Terry O'Quinn, Mickey Rourke, and Willem Dafoe in his first film role.
There were major setbacks in the film's production due to cost and time overruns, negative press, and rumors about Cimino's allegedly overbearing directorial style. It is generally considered one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, and in some circles has been considered to be one of the worst films ever made. It opened to poor reviews and earned $3.5 million domestically (from an estimated $44 million budget), eventually contributing to the near collapse of its studio, United Artists, and effectively destroying the reputation of Cimino, previously one of the ascendant directors of Hollywood owing to his celebrated 1978 film The Deer Hunter, which had won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1979. Cimino had an expansive and ambitious vision for the film and pushed it about four times over its planned budget. The movie's financial problems and United Artists' consequent demise led to a move away from director-driven film production in the American film industry and a shift toward greater studio control of films.
As time has progressed, a number of substantial assessments have become more nuanced and in some cases more positive, and now some critics have described Heaven's Gate as a "modern masterpiece" whose 1980 re-edit after poor press screenings was characterized as "one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history."
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Cast
- 3 Differences from actual history
- 4 Production
- 5 Reception
- 6 Controversy
- 7 Versions of the film
- 8 Accolades
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 External links
In 1870, two young men, Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and William "Billy" Irvine (John Hurt), are graduating from Harvard College. The Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) speaks to the graduates on the association of "the cultivated mind with the uncultivated," and the importance of "the education of a nation." Irvine, brilliant but obviously intoxicated, follows this with his opposing, irreverent views. A celebration is then held after which the male students serenade the women present, including Averill's girlfriend.
1890, Johnson County, Wyoming
Twenty years later, Averill is passing through the booming town of Casper, Wyoming, on his way north to Johnson County, where he is now a marshal. Poor European immigrants new to the region are in conflict with wealthy, established cattle barons organized as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association; the newcomers sometimes steal their cattle for food. Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), Averill's friend and an enforcer for the stockmen, kills a settler for suspected rustling and dissuades another from stealing a cow. At a formal board meeting, the head of the Association, Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), tells members, including a drunk Irvine, of plans to kill 125 named settlers, or "thieves and anarchists" as Canton calls them. Irvine voices his objections to these plans. While the other members vote in favor of the plan, Irvine leaves the meeting, encounters Averill, and tells him of the Association's "death list". As Averill leaves, he exchanges bitter words with Canton and punches him. That night, Canton begins recruiting men to kill the targeted settlers.
Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a Johnson County bordello madam from Quebec who accepts stolen cattle as payment for use of her prostitutes, is infatuated with both Averill and Champion. Averill and Watson skate in a crowd, then dance alone, in an enormous roller skating rink called "Heaven's Gate", built by local entrepreneur John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges). Averill gets a copy of the Association's death list from a baseball-playing U.S. Army captain and later reads the names aloud to the settlers, who are thrown into terrified turmoil. Cully, a station master and a friend of Averill's, sees the train with Canton's posse heading north and rides off to warn the settlers, but is murdered en route. Later, a group of men come to Ella's bordello and rape her; Averill shoots and kills all but one of them. Champion, realizing his landowner bosses are seeking to eliminate Ella, goes to Canton's camp and shoots the remaining rapist, then refuses to participate in the slaughter.
Canton and his men encounter one of Champion's friends, Trapper, leaving a cabin. Canton tells Trapper he has only a minute to warn Champion and his protege Nick Ray (Mickey Rourke) that Canton and his men are waiting outside. Trapper runs back to the cabin to warn the two men. Trapper then emerges from the cabin and is shot, and a gun battle ensues. Attempting to save Champion, Ella arrives in her wagon and shoots one of the hired guns before escaping on horseback. Champion and Nick are trapped inside before Nick is shot and killed. Canton's men push a burning wagon towards the cabin and set it afire, trapping Champion. Champion writes a last note to Ella and Jim. Champion then emerges from the burning cabin, shooting at Canton's men before being gunned down. Ella warns the settlers of Canton's approach at another huge, chaotic gathering at the "Heaven's Gate" rink. The agitated settlers decide to fight back, with Bridges leading the attack on Canton's gang. With the hired invaders now surrounded, both sides suffer casualties (including a drunken, poetic Irvine) as Canton leaves to bring help. Ella and Averill return to Champion's charred and smoking cabin and discover his body along with a handwritten letter documenting his last minutes alive.
The next day, Averill reluctantly joins the settlers, with their cobbled-together siege machines and explosive charges, in an attack against Canton's men and their own makeshift fortifications. Again both sides suffer heavy casualties before the U.S. Army, with Canton in the lead, arrives to stop the fighting and save the remaining besieged mercenaries. Later, at Ella's cabin, Bridges, Ella, and Averill prepare to leave for good but are ambushed by Canton and two others who shoot and kill Bridges and Ella. After killing Canton and his men, a grief-stricken Averill holds Ella's body in his arms.
1903, Newport, Rhode Island
Thirteen years later, in the new century, a well-dressed, beardless, older-looking Averill walks the deck of his yacht off Newport, Rhode Island. He goes below, where an attractive middle-aged woman is sleeping in a luxurious boudoir. Averill watches her, saying nothing. The woman, his old Harvard girlfriend (perhaps now his wife), awakens and asks him for a cigarette. Silently he complies. Then, as he prepares to go back topside, he pauses at the door and quietly looks at her. She doesn't notice his stare. His chin trembles with emotion. Then, wordlessly, he returns to the deck as the yacht steams onward.
Differences from actual history
Apart from being set in Wyoming and the fact that many of the characters have the names of key figures in the Johnson County War, the plot and the characters themselves have almost no relation to the actual historical people and events.
While there were certainly small numbers of settlers arriving in northern Wyoming, there were not hordes of poor European immigrants streaming en masse, let alone killing rich men's cattle out of hunger. Secondly, far from being an "enforcer" for the stockmen and a murderer, Nate Champion was a well-liked small rancher in Johnson County, whom the rich stockmen dubbed "king of the rustlers" because he stood up against their tactic of claiming all unbranded young cattle on the range.
Jim Averell was also a small-time rancher, about a hundred miles southwest of Johnson County. Along with his common-law wife Ellen (or Ella) Watson, he was murdered by rich stockmen two years before the Johnson County War began. Stockmen spread a story that Ella had exchanged sexual favors for stolen cattle, but this was false, and she was certainly not a bordello madam as portrayed in the film. It is unlikely that Watson or Averell ever knew Nate Champion. There are numerous additional ways in which the film bears little or no resemblance to real-life people or events.
In 1971, rising Hollywood film director Michael Cimino submitted an original script for Heaven's Gate (then called The Johnson County War) but the project was shelved when it failed to attract big-name talent. In 1979, after two hit films in a row – 1974's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (filmed in Montana), and on the eve of winning two Academy Awards (Best Director and Best Picture) for 1978's The Deer Hunter – Cimino, now one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, used his "star power" to convince United Artists to resurrect the project with Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, and Christopher Walken as the three main characters. He was given an initial budget of $12 million, but was also provided with carte blanche.
Shooting demands, overruns, and endless retakes
Principal photography began on April 16, 1979, in Glacier National Park, east of Kalispell, Montana, with the majority of the town scenes filmed in the Two Medicine area, north of the village of East Glacier Park. Shooting also included the town of Wallace, Idaho. The project had a December 14 projected release date and $11.6 million budget and promptly fell behind schedule.
According to legend, by the sixth day of filming the project was already five days behind schedule. As an example of Cimino's fanatical attention to detail, a street built to his precise specifications had to be torn down and rebuilt because it reportedly "didn't look right'. The street in question needed to be six feet wider; the set construction boss said it would be cheaper to tear down one side and move it back six feet, but Cimino insisted that both sides be dismantled and moved back three feet, then reassembled.
An entire tree was cut down, moved in pieces, and relocated to the courtyard where the Harvard 1870 graduation scene was shot.
In yet another egregious example, Cimino had an irrigation system built under the land where the major battlefield scene would unfold, so that it would remain vividly green, to contrast with the red color it would later be awash with after the bloody carnage.
Cimino shot more than 1.3 million feet (nearly 220 hours) of footage, costing the studio in salary, locations, and acting fees approximately $200,000 per day. Privately, it was said Cimino had expressed his wish to surpass Francis Ford Coppola's mark of shooting one million feet of footage for Apocalypse Now (1979).
Cimino's obsessive behavior soon earned him the nickname "The Ayatollah". Production fell behind schedule as rumors spread of Cimino's demanding up to 50 takes of individual scenes and delaying filming until a cloud that he liked rolled into the frame. As a result of the numerous delays, several of the musicians originally brought to Montana to work on the film for only three weeks ended up stranded, waiting to be called for shoots to materialize, and simply sat there for six months. The experience, as the Associated Press put it, "was both stunningly boring and a raucous good time, full of jam sessions, strange adventures and curiously little actual shooting." The jam sessions served as the beginning of numerous musical collaborations between Bridges and Kristofferson; they would later reunite for the film Crazy Heart (2009) and for Bridges's eponymous album (2011).
As production staggered forward, United Artists seriously considered firing Cimino and replacing him with another director.
Actor John Hurt spent so long waiting around on the production for something to do, he went off and made The Elephant Man (1980) for David Lynch in the interim, and then came back to shoot more scenes on Heaven's Gate.
Heaven's Gate finished shooting in March 1980, having cost nearly $30 million. During post-production, Cimino changed the lock to the studio's editing room, prohibiting studio executives from seeing the film until he completed the editing. (In a 2015 interview, Cimino denied this ever occurred.) Working with Oscar-winning editor William H. Reynolds, Cimino slaved over his project.
Workprint cut and eventual plans for release
On June 26, 1980, Cimino previewed a work print for executives at United Artists that reportedly ran a staggering five hours and twenty-five minutes (325 minutes), which Cimino said was "about 15 minutes longer than the final cut would be."
The executives flatly refused to release the film at that length and once again contemplated firing Cimino. However, Cimino promised them he could re-edit the film and spent the entire summer and fall of 1980 doing so, finally paring it down to its original premiere length of 3 hours and 39 minutes (219 minutes). The original wide-release opening on Christmas of 1979 had come and gone, so UA and Cimino finally set up a release date in the early winter of 1980.
The final cut finally premiered at New York's Cinema 1 theater on November 19, 1980. The premiere was, by all accounts, a disaster. During the intermission, the audience was so subdued that Cimino was said to have asked why no one was drinking the champagne. He was reportedly told by his publicist, "Because they hate the movie, Michael."
New York Times critic Vincent Canby panned the film, calling it "an unqualified disaster," comparing it to "a forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room." Canby went even further by stating that "[i]t fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect."
After a sparsely attended one-week run, Cimino and United Artists quickly pulled the film from any further releases, completely postponing a full worldwide release.
In April 1981 in Los Angeles, the film resurfaced in a "director's cut" two-hour twenty-nine minute (149 minute) version that Cimino had recut for a third time. Reviewing the shorter cut in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert criticized the film's formal choices and its narrative inconsistencies and incredulities, concluding that the film was "[t]he most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I've seen Paint Your Wagon." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times issued a dissenting opinion when he reviewed the shortened film, becoming one of its few American champions and calling it "a true screen epic" while stating that in two decades as a critic, he had never felt "so totally alone".
The film closed after the second week, having grossed only $1.3 million total on its $44 million budget.
Writing in the The Guardian in 2008, Joe Queenan declared Heaven’s Gate the worst film made up to that time. “This is a movie that destroyed the director's career,” he wrote. “This is a movie that lost so much money it literally drove a major American studio out of business. This is a movie about Harvard-educated gunslingers who face off against eastern European sodbusters in an epic struggle for the soul of America. This is a movie that stars Isabelle Huppert as a shotgun-toting cowgirl. This is a movie in which Jeff Bridges pukes while mounted on roller skates. This is a movie that has five minutes of uninterrupted fiddle-playing by a fiddler who is also mounted on roller skates. This is a movie that defies belief.” 
In subsequent years, some critics have come to the film's defense, beginning with European critics who praised it after the film played at the Cannes Film Festival. Robin Wood was an early champion of Heaven's Gate and its reassessment, calling it "one of the few authentically innovative Hollywood films ... It seems to me, in its original version, among the supreme achievements of the Hollywood cinema." David Thomson calls the film "a wounded monster" and argues that it takes part in "a rich American tradition (Melville, James, Ives, Pollock, Parker) that seeks a mighty dispersal of what has gone before. In America, there are great innovations in art that suddenly create fields of apparent emptiness. They may seem like omissions or mistakes at first. Yet in time we come to see them as meant for our exploration." Martin Scorsese has said that the film has many overlooked virtues. Some of these critics have attempted to impugn the motives of the earliest reviewers. Robin Wood noted, in his initial review of the film, reviewers tended to pile on the film, attempting to "outdo [one an]other with sarcasm and contempt." Several members of the cast and crew have complained that the initial reviews of the film were tainted by its production history and that daily critics were reviewing it as a business story as much as a motion picture. In April 2011, the staff of Time Out London selected Heaven's Gate as the 12th greatest Western. While Peter Biskind covered the many excesses and problems with the movie in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, he also noted that Heaven's Gate was not dissimilar to other big-budget, troubled projects of the late 1970s and early 1980s (such as Steven Spielberg's 1941 and Warren Beatty's Reds), and that the backlash against Heaven's Gate could have easily been directed elsewhere. Biskind speculated that Michael Cimino's unpopularity was the main reason this film became so widely reviled.
Beyond this, part of the critical estimation of the film continues to be low; in 2008, film critic Joe Queenan of The Guardian named Heaven's Gate the worst film ever made. It holds a 58% "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, although several of the 40 reviews aggregated there were published for the film's initial release.
2012–13 re-release and acclaim
In the fall of 2012, the film was re-released to "soak up acclaim" as a 216-minute "director's cut" at the 69th Venice Film Festival on August 30 in the presence of Cimino, followed one month later by screening at the New York Film Festival, and then at the Festival Lumière in France. Venice Festival director Alberto Barbera described the film as an "absolute masterpiece" that had disappeared, and whose 1980 cutting was characterized as a "massacre" by nervous producers and had been "one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history" that had destroyed careers (Cimino and Kristofferson) following "annihilat[ing]" critical reviews.
In March 2013, the new director's cut was again featured back in New York City in a week-long run screening at the Film Forum. A major article by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis opined that the film's "second coming ... brightens a murky, legendary work of art" in a restoration that also "reveals the contradictions of a great flop."
Impact on the U.S. film industry
The film's unprecedented $44-million cost (equivalent to about $122 million as of 2012) and poor performance at the box office ($3,484,331 gross in the United States) generated more negative publicity than actual financial damage, causing Transamerica Corporation, United Artists' corporate owner, to become anxious over its own public image and abandon film production altogether.
Transamerica then sold United Artists to MGM, which effectively ended the studio's existence. MGM would later revive the name "United Artists" as a subsidiary division. While the money loss due to Heaven's Gate was considerable, United Artists was still a thriving studio with a steady income provided by the James Bond, Pink Panther and Rocky franchises. But many movie insiders have argued that UA was already struggling at the time after the executive walkout in 1978 as well as the box office flops like Cruising, Foxes and Roadie, that were released earlier in 1980.
The fracas had a wider effect on the American film industry. During the 1970s, relatively young directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, George Lucas, William Friedkin, and Steven Spielberg had been given unprecedentedly large budgets with very little studio control (see New Hollywood). The studios evolved away from the director-driven film and eventually led to the new paradigm of the high concept feature, epitomized by Jaws and Star Wars. However, the directors' power lessened considerably, as a result of disappointing box-office performers such as both Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977) and Cruising (1980), and culminating in Coppola's One from the Heart and Cimino's Heaven's Gate. As the new high-concept paradigm of filmmaking became more entrenched, studio control of budgets and productions became tighter, ending the free-wheeling excesses that had begotten Heaven's Gate.
The very poor box office performance of the film contributed to a negative impact on the Western genre, which had enjoyed a revival in the late 1960s. From that point on, very few Western films were released by major studios, save for a brief revival in the early 1990s with the Oscar-winning hits Dances with Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992).
Accusations of cruelty to animals
The film was marred by accusations of cruelty to animals during production. One assertion was that live horses were bled from the neck without giving them pain-killers so that their blood could be collected and smeared upon the actors in a scene. The American Humane Association (AHA) asserted that four horses were killed and many more injured during a battle scene. It was claimed that one of the horses was blown up by dynamite. This footage appears in the final cut of the film.
The AHA was barred from monitoring the animal action on the set. According to the AHA, the owner of an abused horse filed a lawsuit against the producers, director, Partisan Productions, and the horse wrangler. The owner cited wrongful injury and breach of contract for willfully depriving her Arabian gelding of proper care. The suit cited "the severe physical and behavioral trauma and disfigurement" of the horse. The case was settled out of court.
There were accusations of actual cockfights, decapitated chickens, and a group of cows disemboweled to provide "fake intestines" for the actors. The outcry prompted the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) to contractually authorize the AHA to monitor the use of all animals in all filmed media.
The film is listed on AHA's list of unacceptable films. The AHA protested the film by distributing an international press release detailing the assertions of animal cruelty and asking people to boycott it. AHA organized picket lines outside movie theaters in Hollywood while local humane societies did the same across the USA. Though Heaven's Gate was not the first film to have animals killed during its production, it is believed that the film was largely responsible for sparking the now common use of the "No animals were harmed ..." disclaimer and more rigorous supervision of animal acts by the AHA, which had been inspecting film production since the 1940s.
Versions of the film
There were several versions of the film.
- Workprint cut 325-minutes
- Print for studio executives, early 1980
- Initial "Premiere" Release: 219-minutes
- Cinema release, November 1980, aborted after 1 week
- Shown on Z Channel cable, 1982, as "The Directors cut"
- Released on VHS and LaserDisc by MGM as "The Legendary Uncut Version"
- Director's Second edit: 149-minutes
- Wide cinema release, April 1981
- Released on DVD in France and Holland
- Radical Cut: 219-minute
- 2005 special screening in Paris and New York
- Reassembled by MGM with available high quality footage (using alternative footage where required)
- 2005 special screening in Paris and New York
- Digitally restored Directors Cut: 216 minutes
- Restored in 2012 for the 69th Venice Film Festival, followed by a BD & DVD release.
- Based on the initial release with the intermission removed, and slightly shortened.
- Restored in 2012 for the 69th Venice Film Festival, followed by a BD & DVD release.
Workprint cut, premiere cut and an alternative cut
Notwithstanding the five hour and twenty-five minute (325 minute) "workprint" cut shown to executives in early 1980, Cimino had rushed through post-production and editing in order to meet his contractual requirements to United Artists, and to qualify for the 1980 Academy Awards. The version screened at the November 1980 premiere ran 3 hours and 39 minutes (219 minutes). Bridges joked that Cimino had worked on the film so close to the premiere that the print screened was still wet from the lab.
After the aborted one-week premiere run in New York, Cimino and United Artists pulled the film; Cimino wrote an open letter to the studio that was printed in several trade papers blaming unrealistic deadline pressures for the film's failure. United Artists reportedly also hired its own editor to try to edit Cimino's footage into a releasable film with no real success.
Ultimately, Cimino's second edited version, a 149-minute version, premiered in April 1981 and was the only cut of the film screened in wide release. This cut of the film is not just shorter but differs radically in placement of scenes and selection of takes. This version, after leaving theaters, was not released on home video of any kind in the United States, but was later released on DVD in France ("la Porte du Paradis").
In 1982, Z Channel aired the 219-minute 1980 premiere version of the film on cable television – the first time that the longer version was widely exhibited – and which Z Channel dubbed the "director's cut." As critic F.X. Feeney noted in the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, Z Channel's broadcast of Heaven's Gate first popularized the concept of a "director's cut."
When MGM (which acquired the rights to United Artists's catalog after its demise) released the film on VHS and videodisc in the 1980s, it released Cimino's 219-minute cut with the tagline "Heaven's Gate... The Legendary Uncut Version." Subsequent releases on LaserDisc and DVD have contained only the 219-minute cut.
Due to the wide availability of the 219-minute 1980 premiere version of Heaven's Gate and its frequent labeling as either "uncut" or the "director's cut," Cimino has insisted that the so-called "original version" did not fully correspond to his intentions, and that he was under pressure to bring it out for the predetermined date and did not consider the film ready, making even the 219-minute version essentially an "unfinished" film.
The 216-minute version showed in Venice is quite similar to the 219 one, but with no intermission. Some shots in the second part are slightly shorter and a shot with a single line has been cut (just after John Hurt is beaten by Sam Waterson).
In the 149-minute version of Heaven's Gate released in 1981, the following scenes are cut:
- Irvine's speech at the Harvard graduation
- The co-ed circle dancing immediately following graduation
- Averill beating up the brute enforcer (who beats up the immigrant in front of his wife and kids)
- Averill passing the beaten man's widow in the carriage, asking her how she's doing
- The spitting fight between the two immigrant landowners in the cockfight scene
- The entire roller skating dance scene
- Some female immigrants carrying a load up the hill
- Champion almost shooting the stock grower that insults Ella Watson
- The scene where Ella Watson first leaves Champion to return to Averill
- The introductory part of the scene where Averill reads the names on the "death list" (the edited version starts with John Bridges firing the gun in the air, to restore order)
- Averill weeping to Bridges that he "hates getting old", while looking at the old photo of himself and his girlfriend
- The immigrants being informed that Averill quit his post, and Watson warning them the stock growers have arrived
- The last five or so minutes of the second battle scene, including the footage of the character crushed under the wagon and the woman killing him in mercy
- That same woman killing herself, post-battle, and Bridges and Averill surveying the carnage
2005 radical cut
In 2005, MGM released the film in selected cinemas in the United States and Europe. The 219-minute cut was reassembled by MGM archivist John Kirk, who reported that large portions of the original negative had been discarded, making this an all-new radical version using whatever alternative available scenes that could be found. The restored print was screened in Paris and presented to a sold-out audience at New York's Museum of Modern Art with a live introduction by Isabelle Huppert. Because the project was commissioned by then-MGM executive Bingham Ray, who was ousted shortly thereafter, the budget for the project was cut and a planned wider release and DVD never materialized and probably never will.
2012 digitally restored Director's Cut
The Criterion Collection released the restored 216 minute version on Blu-ray Disc and DVD on November 20, 2012. This "Director's Cut" was personally supervised by Michael Cimino and Joann Carelli. Cimino explains in the special features portion of the DVD that this is his preferred version of the film, and he feels it is the complete version he intended to make.
- In Competition: Palme d'Or (Michael Cimino)
- Won: Worst Director – Michael Cimino
- Nominated: Worst Picture
- Nominated: Worst Screenplay – Michael Cimino
- Nominated: Worst Musical Score
- Nominated: Worst Actor – Kris Kristofferson
- 1980 in film
- List of box office bombs
- List of films considered the worst
- Revolution (1985) – an historical epic film, starring Al Pacino, that was also made by a high profile director (Hugh Hudson); it, too, was a failure on release and led to problems for its studio (Goldcrest Films). Since then, it, too received a new cut that was more positively reviewed.
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