Morrissey, Douglas: Stringybark Creek and Glenrowan still resonate but can we ever hit the right note? Ned Kelly movies considered

Douglas Morrissey*

‘Stringybark Creek and Glenrowan still resonate but can we ever hit the right note? Ned Kelly movies considered’, Honest History, 9 July 2018

Recently, there has been an abundance of enthusiastic moviemakers wanting to make films about Ned Kelly. There was a crowd-funding project from movie director Matthew Holmes with an ambitious goal of raising $2.5 million in a month. ‘Ours is a very different film to any Ned Kelly film in the past’, Holmes promised. ‘We are interested in finally putting the true story of Ned Kelly on the big screen and stripping away the mythology.’

Holmes’ project used the iconic Kelly armour as publicity for its aggressive marketing campaign. ‘The public, worldwide, are being encouraged to make pledges from as low as $5 and as high as $12,500 with DVDs, Blu-Rays, books, posters, memorabilia and on-set visits as rewards.’ The appeal for funds closed 30 June last year with only $121 164 raised.[1]

Kelly b8d17b1ea6577e8244e105f69a7b87c192011ba1Poster for The Glenrowan Affair, 1951 (supplied)

We can be thankful this film never made its way onto the screen. The screenwriters chosen by the director to accomplish his myth-busting task were said to have impressive credentials as ‘screenwriters and historians’. They turned out to be an actor from the filmmaker’s earlier low budget Ben Hall movie and a literature, media and drama graduate. Both men are avid Ned fans totally enamoured with his myth. Where would historical truth and moviemaking accuracy reside for them? (Not content with failing once, Holmes and his team of dedicated Kellyphiles announced on 4 July this year that they will be making a movie about the siege of Glenrowan.)

There is another multimillion-dollar Ned movie being made that will make it to the screen.[2] This project has strong financial backing, Hollywood star power and a bestselling book adaptation to work with. In March, Snowtown director Justin Kurzel began filming an adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang. Kurzel has said he is excited about his new screen project. ‘Peter Carey’s book always felt like the true spirit of Ned Kelly. Unsentimental, brutal, raw and visceral. His story is one of the great odysseys in history.’[3]

‘Unsentimental, brutal, raw and visceral’ are of little consequence if history is being ignored in favour of presenting a fictional melodrama with make-believe motivation and made-up dialogue. Hyperbole is one of the great side-tracks of history and should not distract us from the truth that Kelly was a career criminal who stole horses, robbed banks and murdered policemen. Ned was not a hero to his victims or to those in his community whose lives he made miserable by his criminal behaviour. Ned and his sly-grog selling family were the family from hell.

Among others slated to appear in the movie, Kurzel’s actress wife Essie Davis will have a prominent screen role. Aussie movie star Russell Crowe will bring his Hollywood star power to the production, although he will not be playing Ned. That role goes to young English actor, George McKay, who will need to abandon his Pommy accent – linguists say Kelly spoke with a broad Aussie accent. Why is a ‘pretty boy’ English movie star being offered the plum role of playing Ned? Is it to provide a handsome new Ned Kelly role model for a modern generation of young moviegoers?

Russell Crowe will play bushranger Harry Power, the then 15-year-old Ned’s mentor in highway robbery. Power was given shelter and protection on Ned’s relatives’ squatting run in the King Valley, which was the focal point of horse and cattle stealing crime. The real Harry had a poor opinion of Ned as a bushranger, describing him as cowardly and ‘no bloody good’. ‘They say he or one of the Quinn’s was dressed up as a black tracker to deceive me. God will judge them for taking blood money [to give Power up to the police].’[4] It will be interesting to see whether Crowe brings to the role Harry Power’s deep-seated sense of betrayal by and strong dislike of his young apprentice.

When it was announced that Kurzel’s movie project would go ahead, lobbying began between several shire councils and others interested in convincing the producer to make the film in their area. Member of the Legislative Assembly for Euroa, Steph Ryan, spoke in state parliament about the movie and wrote to Screen Australia pleading the case for a Euroa location. Ms Ryan said she is proud of her family’s kinship with the Kellys. Her biggest reservation is that the film will ‘not be based on the historically accurate book “The Inner History of the Kelly Gang” written in the 1920s by J.J. Kenneally’.[5] Given that Kenneally’s book is a biased and discredited account, we can hope that it will never be made into a movie.

Benalla Mayor Don Firth voiced Benalla’s bid for the movie’s location. ‘The city had been working with the film producers for a number of months on potential filming locations … Locating filming in the local area has a number of benefits. It provides an excellent way for images of our scenic and impressive region to be shown to a huge audience.’[6] Wangaratta Mayor Ken Clarke said the Ned movie should be made in the north-east around Wangaratta, where the Kelly Gang roamed the ranges.[7] Other areas considered as possible filming locations were Clunes and Ballarat. Everybody wanted a piece of the action. Competition has been fierce between these rivals for Hollywood money and the tourism opportunities that come with such a blockbuster movie-making enterprise.

KellydownloadGrave marker, Greta Cemetery (The Australian)

The township of Glenrowan, where Ned and his gang sought to wreck a train and massacre its passengers, has been less than enthusiastic about the prospects of a new Ned movie. Bob Hempel, the proprietor of the Ned Kelly’s Last Stand tourist attraction, has said, ‘It’s a bummer, because none of the movies have been any good and this one might be worse because it’s fiction, the book it’s based on is not a real account. We used to get 70,000 people through our doors a year, now it’s down to 20,000. I think there is Ned Kelly fatigue. Good luck to them, but I think some people are a bit sick of Ned Kelly.’[8] If a tourist operator who makes his living promoting the Ned Kelly myth as a commercial business venture does not believe in the Justin Kurzel-Peter Carey Ned movie vision, then why should the rest of us?

Peter Carey won the Booker prize in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang. Let’s hope the movie maker will rethink the title, as it would be a deception to say that Carey’s novel is anything other than fantasy. Carey’s narrative is supposedly based on ‘thirteen parcels of stained and dog-eared papers every one of them in Ned Kelly’s distinctive hand, transported to Melbourne inside a metal trunk. Undated, unsigned, a handwritten account in the collection of the Melbourne Public Library (V.L. 10453)’.[9]

The papers – which do not exist – were said to cover Kelly’s life from his early years to his hanging in 1880. The papers claim to be a series of letters written by Ned to his paramour Mary Hearn and his young daughter. For a fiction writer, Carey tries hard to cloak his novel with a semblance of historical legitimacy, as he takes his readers on an imaginary journey that even Ned would have had difficulty recognising. A novelist’s imaginative incursion into a character’s psychology is no substitute for narrating the real events of bank robbery, ambush murder and attempted mass murder that are the true events in Kelly’s life as an outlaw.

Peter Carey will act as advisor to the Kurzel movie and will be on set during filming. Shaun Grant, a writer and actor who has worked with Kurzel on previous movie projects, will adapt the book and write the screen play. In an interview Carey gave to the State Library of Victoria in 2001, he spoke of writing his book.

The one voice that was in my ear was Ned Kelly’s voice in this Jerilderie letter. And that really was like it seemed to me like, you know, this was the character’s DNA. And one could really hope to inhabit the character of Ned Kelly through the voice of the Jerilderie letter.[10]

Ned’s Jerilderie Letter (1879) is an outlaw’s publicity manifesto (Ned wanted it published in the newspapers), a threatening diatribe with a self-serving and far from honest account of the events he describes. In uncritically accepting Ned’s Jerilderie Letter words as a true reflection of the bushranger’s situation, Carey narrows his understanding of Kelly’s life and times. If an historian failed to test the truth of Ned’s Jerilderie Letter rhetoric against the evidence, how could they properly understand the character and personality of the person they study? A novelist has no such boundaries to keep him focussed; he can easily fall into error and make bad judgement calls, as Carey does throughout his Ned literary offering.

The Jerilderie Letter is full of Ned Kelly spin and straight-out lies.[11] Carey treats these lies and distortions as if they were universal truths. Ned claims he is innocent, a reluctant killer and horse thief, driven to do what he does by the evil machinations of others. A working-class hero fighting against incredible odds, Ned heroically shoulders the burden of resistance in defence of his family and the oppressed poor. Carey does no more than fan the flames of intolerance and prejudice, understanding neither Ned’s criminality nor the law and order mentality of the majority of north-east Victoria residents at the time.

In seeking a character’s DNA in his writings, would Carey write a novel about Adolf Hitler using Hitler’s Mein Kampf polemic as a writer’s template for personality and character analysis? Well, maybe he would.

Carey says:

[T]here’s a huge pleasure in inventing a whole world that’s consistent with what is known, but is unlike anything anybody ever imagined about the Kelly story before, and in which you have to have your characters walking out the door they’re known to have walked out of, and walking in the door that they’re known to have walked into. So you know, there’s one way of reading it where you can read that and think, well, it’s not very inventive. But in fact, it’s the most invented, made up book I’ve ever written.[12]

Here we have the crux of Carey’s novel: invention and imagination, with only a cursory nod in the direction of actual historical events. The make-believe world of Ned’s lover, his daughter, and the rest of Carey’s literary imaginings may make good fictional reading but they are deplorable history.

KellyLastOutlaw_3Promotional material for The Last Outlaw, 1980 (supplied)

In describing the Stringybark Creek encounter (October 1878), Carey sides with Ned’s ‘self-defence’ account of the ambush and murder of three Irish policemen. He does not mention that the bushranger fired first and Constables Lonigan and Scanlan had no weapons in their hands. Indeed, Carey has both policemen shooting back. Constable McIntyre, the only policeman to survive the Stringybark Creek carnage, tells us Ned’s bullets killed both men and neither of his police colleagues fired a shot. Carey speaks of non-existent leather body straps allegedly carried by the police to bring in the dead bodies of Ned and Dan. He invents a fiction that Joe Byrne displayed a piece of leather to his hostages at Faithfull’s Creek shortly afterwards.[13]

When discussing Sergeant Michael Kennedy’s shotgun death at Ned’s hands, Carey makes no reference to the bushranger’s two-hour long interrogation of the wounded policeman, who was piteously pleading for his life to be spared ‘for the sake of my wife and children’.[14] Kelly’s was no heat of the moment decision to shoot an injured policeman. Ned spoke of Kennedy’s bravery and covering Kennedy’s body with his policeman’s cloak. The bushranger’s admirers see this as respect and Kennedy’s death as a mercy killing. Yet, Ned chose to end the policeman’s life only after he could learn no more from him. He timed the killing to allow him to flee the scene as darkness fell. What else should we call this but cold-blooded murder?

In Carey’s book, Ned apologetically tells Mary Hearn. ‘Mary, I would never kill no one unless I had to … I shot them fair and square.’[15] If Carey had looked beyond Ned’s Jerilderie Letter lies, he would have found ample evidence that Ned was a larrikin hothead and a ruthless man of violence. There was nothing ‘fair and square’ about the gruesome Stringybark Creek murders; Ned ambushed the police and three policemen died horrible deaths as a consequence of his reckless actions.

Of even greater consequence, Carey fails to inform his reader of Ned’s mass murder intention at Glenrowan. Carey hints at a selector rebellion led by the bushrangers, an Irish-inspired uprising that did not happen and was never likely to have happened. Carey says nothing about Ned removing sections of railway track to derail a train, to send it hurtling down a steep ravine with police and civilians on board. From the top of an embankment, the Kelly Gang wearing their homemade armour would shoot down any survivors. This was a premeditated plan to kill 23 people and it failed, resulting in the Glenrowan Pub siege and Ned’s armour-clad last stand fight against the police, neither of which were meant to happen.

One wonders what Peter Carey’s book would have looked like if, instead of championing Ned’s outlaw cause, the novelist had adopted an approach to his topic that was even-handed and fair. Instead, we get stereotypes and a one-sided narrative that is not ‘raw and visceral’ as Kurzel claims, but simply an apologist’s account of an habitual criminal’s ‘supposed’ mindset as he went about his predatory life of crime, bushranging and murder. Why, it can be asked, does Ned Kelly deserve more attention than those he systematically terrorised and intimidated for a decade or more before he took to the bush as an outlaw?

When the Kurzel film was announced in November 2017, the Adelaide Advertiser, Kurzel’s hometown newspaper, wrote ‘Kurzel wants to make the infamous true story a “gothic western for our times”, set in the colonial Badlands that will shatter the mythology of the notorious bushranger’.[16] A Gothic western? Set in colonial Badlands? Shattering mythology? There is nothing Gothic or artistically enriching in Ned Kelly’s tawdry tale of bushranging and murder. Where are the colonial Badlands supposed to be, at Greta, Benalla, Wangaratta? How can a novelist’s make-believe mythology shatter an existing mythology, when it merely adds another fictional layer to what is already there?

On learning of Justin Kurzel’s Ned movie project, Matthew Holmes – he of the ill-fated crowd-funded Kelly movie – made a revealing Facebook comment.

We’ve had so many adaptions [sic] of this story, yet every time (except for the TV series “The Last Outlaw”) filmmakers have been too scared to follow the FACTS and they balls it up with historical inaccuracy and Hollywood rubbish. I’m pretty disappointed this new version will be based on a book – why not just go straight to history and write the script from that?[17]

Kelly070277-kelly-jagger-20110901Poster for the Tony Richardson version, 1970 (supplied)

Why not indeed! Holmes’s singling out of the 1980s television miniseries The Last Outlaw (written by Ian Jones), suggesting that it was accurate and factual, reveals the naivety of a filmmaker who desperately wants to believe the job has been done previously with some historical credibility. In the miniseries, actor John Jarratt brought a refreshing and manly persona to the Ned character; Jarratt’s charismatic onscreen presence and his public image as a likeable good guy clearly made the production what it was. Unfortunately, historical faux pas and straight-out fabrications abounded in the series and it was bereft of character development beyond one dimensional cliché. There was no credible community background presented, the production dealt in stereotypes and parodies: evil squatters, oppressed selectors, corrupt policemen and heroic bushrangers.

James Whitty, who Ned angrily derides in the Jerilderie Letter, is depicted in The Last Outlaw as a cranky Scotsman, a squatter with a thick Scottish accent and an evil disposition. Carey, too, portrays Whitty as a squatter bogeyman endlessly bullying selectors and making life miserable for everybody. Ian Jones, with an inadequate knowledge of north-east community life, portrayed Ned’s bushranger crimes as legitimate rebellion against an oppressive colonial establishment and unfeeling Protestant elite.

None of this is true; filmmakers and authors should stop exploiting the Ned Kelly myth to sell their books and put bums on movie theatre seats. Whitty was not a squatter nor did he engage, as Carey states, in ‘dummying’ (fraudulently gaining title to land) and ‘peacocking’ (tying up land with water access) to obstruct selection in the region.

Carey condemns Whitty because Ned said Whitty impounded livestock. Whitty was a respected community leader, a staunch Irish Catholic, a leading light in the Moyhu Catholic Church and a strong campaigner for Home Rule for Ireland. As for impounding livestock, Whitty did what every other farmer in the district did, including Ned and his lawless relatives. He protected his property’s grass from trespassing livestock. It was Ned and his Greta Mob horse and cattle thieves who were the troublemakers of the neighbourhood. They stole animals from rich and poor alike. Holmes ‘FACTS’ are actually the ‘facts’ as manipulated by Jones, Carey and others to conform with Kelly myth caricature and the fake news of the past.

Then there was the movie disaster of Mick Jagger’s bland portrayal of Ned in the Tony Richardson film Ned Kelly (1970). The film was a creative and financial failure. Jagger and director Richardson disowned the movie immediately, neither attended the London premiere and they rarely spoke of it afterwards. (Again, Ian Jones is credited as a writer of the Richardson movie.) Jagger’s Ned was a wimp with little charisma and he was laughable in the bareknuckle fistfight scene with larrikin brawler Wild Wright. Even with a gun in his hand and professed anger, Jagger was unconvincing and expressed none of the ferocity of Ned’s unpredictable temper.

The New York Times dismissed the Richardson-Jagger movie as ‘somewhat pretentious folk-ballad fare that often explains little more than its action … Richardson’s direction and script … do not delve too deeply into [Ned’s] character. Nor are the principals’ motivations projected with relevance to untutored American viewers.’[18] Richardson’s movie depicted James Whitty and his family as upper crust English gentry with snobbish manners and posh voices. Mick Jagger’s attempted Irish brogue was simply atrocious and added to the jarring nature of a movie that failed on so many levels.

In 2003, Gregor Jordan’s film Ned Kelly, based on the 1991 novel Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe, made its way to the movie screen. On the eve of the movie’s release, Jordan said, ‘Australians will think what they’re seeing is fictional but most of the movie is fact … [F]or instance, it’s apparently true that Joe Byrne got dressed up in a dress to go and shoot his best friend, Aaron Sherritt … There’s these things that seem like they’re bullshit, but they’re actually true.’[19] Apparently true? Actually true? Really? It would have been more truthful of Jordan to say ‘the movie is complete fiction, containing very little fact’.

Heath Ledger played ‘Ned the Hero’ in a performance that added nothing to our understanding of the outlaw. The slick Hollywood production cost $30 million and had a creditable cast of actors, including Orlando Bloom, Naomi Watts and Geoffrey Rush. Even this Hollywood star power proved incapable of sustaining a flawed and – let’s face it – silly Ned Kelly movie. The film won several awards for costume and set design, but was a financial disaster at the box office, taking in only $6.6 million. The critics rubbished the ridiculously inadequate storyline, which included a travelling circus and Ned’s secret romance with a squatter’s wife and bore little resemblance to the truth of Ned’s life or anything else.

Movie critic Luke Buckmaster recently said of Jordan’s film. ‘Jordan’s (movie) is soapy and artificial: the sort of wishy-washy, ye-olde production in which even exterior sequences feel like they were filmed on sound stages’. He summed up Ned Kelly film-making succinctly when he said, ‘No actor has proven to be the definitive onscreen Ned Kelly, and no director has made a great Ned Kelly movie’.[20]

There is a reason why filmmakers prefer to use fictional accounts rather than genuine historical works to portray Ned’s story. Reality is a messy and complex business, not easily framed or encapsulated in a contrived movie image. It is easier, as Carey says, to invent ‘a whole world consistent with what is known’. This is dressing up of a fantasy with a partial resemblance to truth, rather than attempting to unravel the past, cogently and perceptively.

Kellye1d70ec7ba1908808e126ea37f2729d6Heath Ledger in the 2003 version (The Australian)

It seems unlikely that Justin Kurzel’s film will prove to be the Ned Kelly movie breakthrough. In Peter Carey’s award-winning literary hands, Kurzel’s movie looks like conforming to the pattern of earlier Ned movies, which were fictional, pedestrian and ordinary in every way. Fictional accounts of historical events that stray too far from the reality of what happened simply turn people off. Ned Kelly filmmakers have two major scenes they want to present dramatically and bigger and better than previous movie attempts: the Stringybark Creek ambush murders and the Glenrowan downfall of the Kelly Gang. Gunfights and the wearing of homemade armour cannot sustain a believable movie, if everything else is glossed over and is simply a rehash or soapie portrayal of the Ned Kelly myth.

The late Waylon Jennings, an American country and western singer, wrote and sang most of the songs for the Tony Richardson film starring Mick Jagger. In marked contrast to Richardson’s prosaic movie fare, the emotive lyrics of Jennings’s compelling song ‘Lonigan’s widow’[21] come closest to shattering the Ned Kelly myth. The key verses of the song are as follows.

They were cleaning the camp, boiling some tea
When up jumped Ned Kelly with his comrades three
With a shout and a cry and a crack of a gun
Lonigan staggers and Lonigan’s done.

He’s crawling, he’s crying, he’s clawing the ground
His voice makes a pleading and pitiful sound
Of the way that he’s dying, nobody will speak
When they tell of the glories on Stringybark creek.

But Lonigan’s widow, she sang him no songs
She walks these red hills, she cries all night long
They say that Ned Kelly ain’t never done wrong
But tell that to Lonigan’s widow.

So sing of Ned Kelly, the lad of renown
The pride of Australia, the scourge of the crown
Sing of his bravery and God bless his head
And bury the truth as you bury the dead.

The police murders at Stringybark Creek are a seminal event in the Ned Kelly story. Ben Head, an aspiring young film director at the Victorian College of the Arts (where Justin Kurzel also received his training) has successfully crowd-funded a short movie (Stringybark) presented from the police point of view. Ben reached his modest funding target of $15 000 within hours of an article appearing on the front page of the Melbourne Age and in the Sydney Morning Herald appealing for funding support.[22] Contributor comments reveal an excitement about Ben’s movie project that may just indicate a changing of the guard as far as Ned Kelly moviemaking is concerned. ‘The project is of great historical importance to Australians and I am really looking forward to seeing the film’, wrote one contributor. Another said, ‘What a fantastic opportunity. Really pleased to be a contributor and supporter of this project.’[23]

For one contributor the opportunity to donate was more personal and informative of the often unappreciated role of the police in today’s society.

Being married to a police officer gives you the “other side” of what it’s like dealing with people the rest of us don’t want to. They are the front liners, the first responders who have to make decisions faster than most of us are ever called upon to make, often in dangerous conditions. This is a great project and a gutsy one because it goes against the lazy populist attitude of bad boys are really good at heart.[24]

Kelly330px-Michael_Kennedy_grave_at_MansfieldGrave, Mansfield Cemetery, of Sergeant Kennedy, murdered at Stringybark Creek (Wikipedia)

Ben’s movie will be filmed in September in Victorian locations, drawing upon crowd funding of $31 450. ‘The aim is to produce a 30-minute “proof of concept” film which can then be shown to funding bodies such as Screen Australia and Film Victoria to demonstrate that it is worth making into a full-length movie.’ The novice filmmaker is to be congratulated on his strong commitment to factual filmmaking. He wants to tell an accurate story of three respected police officers shot down while doing their duty. We should applaud and support Ben’s Stringybark film project. It will undoubtedly be a far better film adaptation of what actually happened at Stringybark Creek than the imaginative musings of Peter Carey, a prize-winning novelist who wants us to see Ned Kelly as a Robin Hood figure.


[1] Cinema Australia, 23 May 2017; Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 2017;

[2] Daily Mail, 9 November 2017; Herald Sun, 7 November 2017.

[3] Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 2017; Australian Associated Press, 7 November 2017; Variety, 6 November 2017.

[4] Doug Morrissey, Ned Kelly: Selectors, Squatters and Stock Thieves, Connor Court, Brisbane, 2018, p. 257.

[5] Riverine Herald, 23 November 2017.

[6] Benalla Ensign, Riverine Herald, 23 November 2017.

[7] Border Mail, 7, 8 November 2017.

[8] Weekly Times, 9 November 2017.

[9] Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2000.

[10] ‘Imagining Ned Kelly: Interview with Peter Carey’, State Library of Victoria 2001, .

[11] See Doug Morrissey, Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life, Connor Court, Brisbane, 2015, pp. 191-237 for an annotated version of Ned’s Jerilderie Letter.

[12] ‘Interview with Peter Carey’.

[13] Carey, True History, p. 340.

[14] Morrissey, Lawless Life, p. 330.

[15] Carey, True History, p. 296.

[16] Advertiser (Adelaide), 7 November 2017.

[17] Facebook comment, Matt Holmes, November 2017.

[18] New York Times, 8 October 1970.

[19] Interview (2003) with Gregor Jordan on release of his film Ned Kelly: .

[20] Guardian, 15 November 2017.

[21] Waylon Jennings song ‘Lonigan’s widow’ from soundtrack of Tony Richardson’s film Ned Kelly (1970).

[22] Age (Melbourne), 3 June 2018; Sydney Morning Herald 3, 5 June 2018;

[23] Pozible – Stringybark by Ben Head, .

[24] Pozible – Stringybark.

* Douglas Morrissey has previously written for Honest History about Ned Kelly (‘The Irishness of Ned Kelly: romance and reality’, ‘The heritage marketing of Ned Kelly‘). He is author of  Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life (edited by John Hirst, Connor Court, 2015) which was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (reviewed in Journal of Australian Colonial History, 2016, by David Kent, pdf supplied by Dr Morrissey), and of ‘Time to bury the Ned Kelly myth’ (Quadrant Online, 2017). Morrissey’s 1987 Ph. D dissertation at La Trobe University was Selectors, Squatters and Stock Thieves: A Social History of Kelly Country. His book, Ned Kelly: Selectors, Squatters and Stock Thieves will be published by Connor Court soon. He is historical consultant to the Stringybark movie described above.

Kelly181_0166Poster for the Italian release of the 1970 movie (supplied)


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