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Film / Red Tails

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A 2012 historical action drama film directed by Anthony Hemingway and starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard, based on the exploits of the Tuskeegee Airmen, an all-black squadron of American fighter pilots in World War II.

The first feature film to be produced by Lucasfilm after 2008's returns to the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises, as well as its first film with 20th Century Fox since Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith. This was also the studio's last independently made film prior to being bought by The Walt Disney Company nine months later.


Red Tails features examples of the following tropes:

  • An Aesop: Put your duties and responsibilities to others before your own desires. Also, the more obvious aesops about the need to overcome racial prejudice and overcoming adversity.
  • Abandon Ship: Of the aviation variety. Various aircraft end up badly damaged, requiring their crews to bail out.
    • Played straight a few times, notably with one pilot who escapes his burning plane simply by jettisoning the canopy, unbuckling from his seat, and rolling the plane inverted, which neatly drops him out of the plane so he can trigger his parachute. This technique is Truth in Television but particularly applies to the British Spitfire, whose cockpit was so narrow (thanks to the need for streamlining) that climbing out quickly was difficult.
    • Subverted a few times as well. One bomber is badly damaged, and the pilot orders the crew to bail out. The plane is promptly blown apart by a German fighter. On another occasion, a pilot is too weak from his injuries to bail out, and is forced to attempt to land. He crashes, but survives.
  • Ace Pilots: How else do you describe pilots who shoot down jet fighters with propeller planes?
    • Pretty Boy, with dozens of kill markings painted undert the cockpit. Germans never painted their kill tally under the cockpit, but on the fin and/or rudder.
  • The Alcoholic: Easy relies on drink to get himself through the war. His friend Lightning tries to get him to stop. He doesn't until the end of the movie.
  • Artistic License – Ships: Two Tuskegee airmen really did successfully attack a German-crewed torpedo boat: TA22, formerly the Italian World War I-era Rosolino Pilo-class destroyer Giuseppe Missori which was seized and refitted by the Kriegsmarine after Mussolini's overthrow. However, the scene depicting this action has a TREMENDOUS problem: the ship that the studio chose to include as the "destroyer" isn't a destroyer, it's a Littorio-class battleship. Two P-51s making strafing runs could very well be catastrophic for a torpedo boat (as it was for TA22: she made it back to port but was judged damaged beyond repair and scrapped), but would be mildly annoying at best for the battleship. (For what it's worth, all three remaining Italian battleships were being interned in Egypt at the time of the attack on TA22.)
  • "Awkward Silence" Entrance: Done twice when the Tuskeegee Airmen enter the officially whites-only officers' club. The first time, Lightning goes in alone, gets told to leave, and blows his stack. The second time, after the squadron manages to escort a bomber group to and from the target with no bombers lost, the leader of the bomber group tells the bartender "they're with us" and buys them a round.
  • Batman Gambit: Pretty Boy's squadron uses decoy planes to draw American fighters off so they can pick off the bombers easily. This works on the all-white escort group in the opening sequence, who were trained to go for as many kills as they can, but it fails to entice the Red Tails, who know they'll never fly escort duty again if they don't stay on-mission and get the bombers home safely.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Inverted: the first deaths we see are of white B-17 crews. The last onscreen death in the movie is Lightning's Mutual Kill with Pretty Boy.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Lightning, mortally wounded by Pretty Boy's autocannon fire.
  • Book-Ends: The first and last combat missions we see the Red Tails flying on end with Lightning attacking the target head-on.
  • Calling Your Attacks: An odd example, with two pilots predicting how many German planes they can destroy on each pass. Junior gets hit by a flak gun after declaring that he can get four at once.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Deke gets sent home after his plane catches fire and he suffers third-degree burns over a significant portion of his body. Junior is able to talk his way into averting this trope after he is half-blinded by shrapnel, and is shot down soon after.
  • Catch-22 Dilemma: What the pilots of the 332nd face at the start of the film: The higher-ups refuse to accept that black pilots are fit for air combat until they have achieved some air-to-air victories against the Germans, and they refuse to assign them anywhere they will run into the Luftwaffe until they can prove themselves fit for air combat. This is, of course, an excuse to cover not wanting to use blacks in combat out of simple racism.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Easy, after Junior's capture and Lightning's death.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Averted with Raygun's, well, raygun.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Lightning learns a maneuver from Pretty Boy that he puts to good use in combat later.
  • Cliché Storm: Purposely invoked since the movie is supposed to be reminiscent of old patriotic war movies of the 40s.
  • Coming in Hot: Easy and Deke, complete with "Stay on my wing"-based dialogue. Pretty Boy, who is forced to do a belly landing at full speed in his crippled BF-109 because he is being chased by four American pilots.
  • Composite Characters: The main cast are composites of real Tuskegee Airmen from information gathered mostly from research and interviews of still-living former members of the squadron, and some of the real life victories are shown as being performed by the fictional characters.
  • Cool Plane: The film features Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, North American P-51D Mustangs, Messerschmitt BF-109s, and the first combat jet in history, the Me-262 Schwalbe. For the bomber fans, there's also Boeing B-17Gs aplenty. The P-40s were hand-me-downs, pretty well beat up by the time the Tuskegee Airmen got to them, more like Alleged Planes. That said, this would have been more to do with the condition and age of the planes, rather than their design: The P-40 Warhawk was a very successful aircraft when employed in its own niche: Low and mid-altitude aerial combat and ground attack.
  • Cool vs. Awesome: P-51D Mustangs dogfighting against much faster and more heavily armed Me-262 Schwalbes. Fortunately, one of the American pilots quickly deduces that while the 262s can fly fast, they can't turn much at all, and respond by spraying machine gun fire in front of the jets, which are unable to evade before flying obligingly into the stream of fire.
    • It's called "deflection fire" or "leading the target" and is standard practice when not firing straight from behind the target. No matter how agile (or not) the target is, deflection fire is hard to evade since bullets or shells move fast and are hard to spot.
    • Truth in Television: While 262s could leave the P-51 in the dust in terms of sheer speed in the air, the 51 accelerated faster and could turn on a dime while the early Me-262s required a long arc in order to execute the same turn. On the rare occasion where a 262 squadron would actually stick around and dogfight (for the most part, they would simply dive through bomber formations and take out as many as they could in one pass), P-51 pilots would follow the 262s into their dives, where the 51's superior initial acceleration would actually allow them to outrun the 262 and thus give them the upper hand. The other tactic was seen in the movie: get ahead of the 262s and lead them with a spray of bullets.
      • The third tactic, which was to use the Mustang's superior endurance to stooge around near a German airfield until you could catch an Me 262 taking off or landing, was not shown as it would make for a really boring movie, although it did necessitate a German counter-strategy of having propeller-driven fighters patrolling over the base during the jets' takeoff and landing to try and chase away or knock down any Allied planes hoping for an easy kill.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The Red Tails' first front-line engagement results in 8 enemy planes shot down and 63 enemy planes destroyed on the ground for none of their own shot down (although damage is taken).
    • The opening aerial battle, where the bomber escort leaves a flight of B-17s completely unprotected against a squad of BF-109s, who proceed to shred the formation.
  • Dare to Be Badass:
    Major Emanuelle Stance: Pick your head up. You're fighter pilots.
  • Death from Above: The Red Tails find themselves doing this a lot. At first, settling for trucks and trains because the higher ups refuse to station them somewhere where they will find any German aircraft to shoot at. Later on, they inflict heavy damage upon a German airfield and a destroyer as targets of opportunity. The P-51s were slower than the German jets, but if they climbed and then dove, they could fly faster. This is shown in the film.
  • Desk Jockey: Major Stance and Colonel Bullard, what with them running the squadron's operations and dealing with the higher-ups.
  • Do a Barrel Roll: Inevitable. The rolls they performed above the base after a successful mission were "victory rolls." Victory Rolls is the title of one background music track on the soundtrack. And then there was the tight loop that Pretty Boy used against Lightning, and that Lightning later used against a Luftwaffe mook in the final battle.
  • Dies Wide Open: Lightning, in the film's climax.
  • Divine Race Lift: Deke always makes sure to pray to "Black Jesus."
    • Ironic Echo: "Help me Jesus!" when he's really in trouble.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: One of the aerial gunners on the American bombers early in the film gets one of these in on his .50 caliber machine gun in the film's intro, this primarily serves to show the defenders' grim determination, despite how badly stacked the battle is against them.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: Lightning barreling towards Pretty Boy, never letting go of the trigger despite getting shot multiple times with autocannon rounds.
  • Elite Mooks: The Me-262 jet fighters.
  • The Engineer: Coffee and his crew chiefs are the vehicular variety, constantly berating Lightning for damaging their planes. Coffee claims that he used to be a very cheerful man until he met Lightning.
  • Faceless Goons: The only German pilot's face you see is "Pretty Boy," the main antagonist, who never seems to wear his goggles. Could also be Helmets Are Hardly Heroic.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Lightning's photo of Sofia. Averted with Junior. It's only after the heroes find out that He Didn't Make It that it is mentioned that he had a wife and two kids.
  • Five-Man Band
  • Foreign Cuss Word: A German pilot yells "Scheiss!!" as Lightning uses Pretty Boy's maneuver on him, shooting him down faster then he can react.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Deacon is badly wounded, and ends up soaked in gasoline due to a punctured fuel tank, in one mission. It doesn't take much imagination to foresee how this will end for him. His plane crash-lands, and bursts into flames. He is pulled out and survives, however.
    • A bomber officer warns the fighter pilots about the new jet fighters the Germans are beginning to field late in the movie. Pretty Boy turns up leading a squadron of Me-262s during the final dogfight sequence.
  • Functional Addict: He never gets heavily drunk, and it's unclear if anything particularly bad ever comes of it. That said, because of the revelation that he has been Drinking on Duty, many of his choices are called into question by Lightning and Easy himself.
  • Genre Throwback: To the straightforward, patriotic war movies of the 1940s and 1950s, which the Tuskegee pilots didn't actually get back then because of their race.
  • He Didn't Make It: Junior, according to an escaped prisoner of war. Subverted, in that Junior manages to survive and escape on his own.
  • Helmets Are Hardly Heroic: Played Straight at the beginning to give the audience a chance to get to know the pilots, then averted after the switch from P-40 Warhawks to P-51 Mustangs. Also justified, as the P-40 was suited to low-altitude combat, where the pilots wouldn't need to wear their masks. When they're assigned to cover the heavy bombers they're flying much higher.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • A racist officer in Washington, Colonel Mortamus, leaks a report critical of the Tuskegee Airmen's lack of success to the press, hoping to erode support for it. Instead, it is pointed out that doing so could be considered a major security leak, and the Army is forced to save face by reassigning the unit to a sector where they can actually contribute to the war (the reason for their lack of success being that they were assigned to fly in sectors where the Germans hadn't been spotted).
    • In a less direct example, the maneuver Pretty Boy pulls on Lighting in an attempt to shoot him down fails (albeit barely), forces him to head back to base when Easy damages his plane in turn, leads to the destruction of said base, and finally allows Lightning to copy the maneuver once he works it out.
  • Hollywood History: The movie perpetuates the myth that the 332nd "never lost a bomber;" in fact, just during its time with the 15th Air Force 27 bombers were lost on missions escorted by the Red Tails. This was better than average for US fighter groups, but it certainly wasn't "none." Thoug pretty much all of those losses were from anti-aircraft fire, not enemy planes.
  • Hollywood Tactics:
    • In addition to the Standard Hollywood Strafing Procedure, lampshaded in the movie itself, there is the requirement for the escorts to stay with the bombers. In this case, a Real Life strategy that actually made it more difficult for escorting fighters to protect the bombers, as they had a very limited opportunity to engage the German fighters who preferred hit and run tactics. The strategy eventually evolved to include fighters staying close to the bombers (showing the bomber crews that they were protected), and more fighters farther out actively screening the formation against any incoming enemies.
    • Similarly, the German fighters in the film's intro attacked the American bombers from their 6 O'Clock (straight behind). German pilots typically avoided doing this because American bombers were the most heavily protected from the rear (the tail gunner, turret gunner, and ball turret gunner could all fire at targets behind the bomber). Attacking from head-on not only helped to avoid some of these gunners, but it also increased the closing speed of the fighters relative to the bombers by around 400 knots, making the smaller fighters much more difficult to hit. Head-on attacks by German fighters was so common, later models of the B-17 included a new chin turret for the bombardier and two more gunner positions near the nose for the navigator and radio operator.
  • Homage Shot: At least a few.
    • We get a shot of the American fighters taking off in the distance, as a pair of onlookers watch from a tower.
    • We see the tail of a Mustang fighter slicing through the clouds before the rest of the plane rises into view, much in the style of Airplane!, which in itself was making of Jaws.
  • Hot-Blooded: Lightning; he gets chewed out for it after starting a bar fight.
  • Huddle Power: "Nothing's difficult! Everything's a challenge! Through adversity to the stars! From the last plane to the last bullet to the last minute to the last man we fight! We fight!"
  • In-Series Nickname: Easy, Lightning, Joker, Smoky, Ray Gun/Junior, Deke, Coffee
  • Iconic Item:
    • Deacon's "Black Jesus" picture, Junior's toy Ray Gun, Stance's pipe, and Easy's pocket flask.
    • Also the Red Tails' red-tailed planes, and Pretty Boy's yellow-nosed Messerschmitts.
  • Jackie Robinson Story: Obviously, since this is story how a group of African American pilots overcame racist opposition from within their own army's ranks to prove they were at least, and often times more than, equal to any white pilot.
  • Just Plane Wrong:
    • Relatively minor case: The squadron is shown transitioning to P-51D Mustangs, when in Real Life, they had transitioned to the rather less iconic P-51C model. The most visible difference being the P-51C having a more traditional canopy rather than the D model's "Bubble" canopy. The 332dd actually did fly P-51Ds in 1944 after having flown Cs, so it could be just a case of the creators not bothering to show the latter as well as the other two models (P-39 and P-47) not shown in the film.
    • Not to mention that in between the P-40 Warhawks and the P-51 Mustangs, they also flew Bell P-39 Aircobras and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, neither of which had the same degree of fame as the Mustangs.
    • The real Me-262 carried four 30mm Mk-108 cannons. Lightning's death getting riddled with small-caliber bullets would realistically have looked more like a gigantic fireball caused by the hail of 330-gram explosive-incendiary bullets blowing his engine to bits. At the very least he would have been reduced to a red smear on the inside of the cockpit. See Rule of Drama: the imagery of him bleeding out in his cockpit as he spirals to a crash has more impact.
  • Ladykiller in Love: Lightning has a reputation as a playboy before he spots Sofia during a fly by and goes to meet her with less than honorable intentions. He winds up falling head over heels.
  • Language of Love: Lightning/Sofia
  • Live-Action Escort Mission: The Red Tails' preferred modus operandi.
  • Made of Explodium: Pretty much the whole MOVIE is made of this. Nothing simply hits the ground or stops working; everything goes boom in spectacular fashion, even the famously hearty B-17 bombers.
    • The ease with which the bombers were to take out is Truth in Television: they had weak spots that could be exploited. The Germans knew that if they could hit the wing root on the trailing edge of the wing, they had a good chance of tearing the bomber in half. Just forward of that spot, is the bomb bay. A single HE cannon shell exploding there would turn a B-17 to dust before its crew could even blink.
    • Ironically averted one of the times it should have happened: when Lightning is killed by Pretty Boy, he's taking 30mm autocannon shells right in his cockpit. These were shells the size of milk bottles loaded with high-explosives. Lightning's plane would have been blown apart by a direct hit.
    • Taken to a hilarious extreme in the opening battle when a B-17 explodes in a massive fireball after being shot in the tail turret, a section of the plane containing nothing but a gunner and his two machine guns.
  • Mid-Season Upgrade:
    • The Red Tails trade in their beat up Curtiss P-40 Warhawks for brand shiny new North American P-51D Mustangs.
    • Pretty Boy and his squadron trade up from their Messerschmitt BF-109s for Me-262s, the first operational jet fighters in history.
  • Mildly Military: Hot-Blooded Lightning, who can't avoid disobeying orders and getting into brawls. The only thing keeping Colonel Bullard from kicking him out is the fact that he has the most raw flying talent of anyone in the squadron.
  • Mood Whiplash: Lightning's solemn funeral is interrupted by Junior returning and making a very bombastic entrance.
  • More Dakka:
  • Mortal Wound Reveal: A mix of this and Major Injury Underreaction. Lightning goes head to head with a German fighter. He brings down the fighter, but takes numerous hits himself in the process. Once the adrenaline wears off, he realizes he has quite a few holes in him.
  • Mutual Kill: Lightning and Pretty Boy.
  • Nazi Stormtrooper Academy:
    • Completely averted with the German fighter pilots, who are deadly accurate in their aircraft. Toward the end, their problem wasn't a lack of accuracy, but lack of maneuverability. Played mostly straight with the German anti-aircraft gunners except for one hitting and crippling Junior, especially aboard the destroyer, who apparently were so shocked at being attacked by fighters they couldn't hit the broad side of a barn.
    • And a very rare example from the side of the protagonists: the B-17 gunners in the opening sequence also pretty much can't hit the broad side of a barn, with horrific consequences.
  • Nobody Ever Complained Before: Evidently, it never occurred to at least one member of the white bomber crews that black people took offense to the expression "Colored People." The Airmen tell them to just say "black".
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Colonel Bullard is mostly a stand-in for the Real Life commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
  • Nose Art:
    • The Tuskegee Airmen's trademark red-tailed paintjobs.
      • Also, their unique nickname-based logos, like Easy's lounging figure.
      • Amusingly, Junior's logo indicates that his name is "Ray Gun", despite the fact that everyone refuses to call him that.
    • The Germans fly grey planes with black specks.
    • A more subtle example, both the B-17s and the P-40s at the beginning of the film bear the drab olive-green paint scheme common of US Army Air Forces aircraft for much of the war. Towards the end, the Americans have all transitioned to the striking (and very shiny) bare metal paint jobs used by the Army Air Forces towards the end.
  • N-Word Privileges: Discussed at length, and eventually Played for Laughs.
  • Oh, Crap!: At various points. One in particular comes from Lightning during the squadron's first air combat mission. he's initially confident that he can bring Pretty Boy down, only to lose his cool when Pretty Boy manages to flip his plane and get behind Lightning. The last one is where Lightning realizes they're now facing advanced Me-262 jets.
    • "Oh shit, Jets! WE GOT JETS!"
  • Old-School Dogfight: Naturally, since the story is during World War Two.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: A joint vehicular and human version when Lightning's plane goes head to head with an Me-262 jet fighter. Me-262 Schwalbes were armed with 4×30 mm MK 108 autocannons which fired exploding rounds; Lightning and his plane sustain several direct hits and should have been obliterated instantly. He's mortally wounded , dies and crashes soon after, however.
  • Operation: [Blank]: Operation Shingle, providing air cover for an amphibious assault in Italy.
  • Point Defenseless: The anti-aircraft guns at the German airfield, aboard the destroyer, and in the American bombers are pretty much useless in this movie.
  • Precision F-Strike: The line that causes Lightning to start a bar fight, "go home nigger," is left unaltered when the movies is shown on cable TV.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: The movie uses subtitles only when the speaker and listener can understand each other. When Lightning talks to Sofia, her Italian is unsubtitled. When Pretty Boy radios his wingmen, his German is subtitled.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The scene of the Airmen strafing a German destroyer drew complaints, but it actually happened to TA22 (which was classified as a torpedo boat by the Kriegsmarine but was really an Italian Royal Navy Rosalino Pilo-class destroyer commandeered by the Wehrmacht after the fall of Mussolini). The real problem with the scene is that the ship depicted is a Littorio-class battleship, not TA22 or anything similar.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Major Stance, and then Colonel Bullard once he returns from Washington.
  • Red Alert: The Luftwaffe airfield when Pretty Boy reports that he is Coming in Hot, pursued by four American fighter planes. The Fighter-Launching Sequence barely has a chance to get started before the American pilots lay waste to the place. Two planes barely make it into the air before getting shot down.
  • Red Baron: Pretty Boy.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Easy is Blue to Lightning's Red
    • Interestingly, while Easy is much more level-headed (and higher-ranking), Lightning is much more often right about what tactics they should use, which is the cause of much of their tension.
  • Retirony: Lightning proposes to Sofia and keeps a picture of her in his cockpit. He dies in the very next mission.
  • A Round of Drinks for the House
  • Rousing Speech: By Major Stance and Colonel Bullard. The highpoints of each get quoted as the squadron's pre-flight Battle Cry during their Huddle Power moment later on.
  • Shout-Out: To The Great Escape, with the tunnel and the way the German guard gets surprised by a prisoner popping his head out of the hole in the snow-laden ground.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • The filmmakers went through great pains to make the movie accurate, going as far as interviewing the surviving members of the squadron, and even getting access to their journals. That over-the-top bit with one pilot disabling an Italian destroyer? It happened.
    • Some of the tactics used are accurate, including attacking a train head-on to minimize the danger of being hit by the Anti-Air defenses on the train, and going into a power dive from high altitude to engage the German jet fighters (the P-51 Mustang was slower than the Me-262 in level flight, but could handily outdive it). Also the attack from the side against the Me-262, spraying lead ahead of the jet and letting the guy fly into it.
    • One scene depicting a cockpit filling with fuel shows one interesting detail: Aviation gasoline is color-coded (based on octane rating, lead content, and other factors) to make identification easier. For obvious reasons, you don't want to risk putting the wrong kind of fuel into a machine that operates at thousands of feet above the ground.
    • Sadly averted with the unit insignia, both USAAF and Luftwaffe. The red tail markings belonged to 8th Air Force, which operated from Britain. The yellow nose belonged to JG 26 at Channel front. One of the planes is shown to bear 3rd Waffen-SS ''infantry'' division insignia. The swastikas are in all cases of wrong shape and on completely wrong place on tailplanes. and finally, Pretty Boy's kill tally is shown under the cockpit, while the German custom was to paint the kill tally on the fin.
  • Sitting Duck: The German aircraft at the airfield that is treated to an impromptu air raid by Easy, Lightning, Joker, and Junior.
  • Standard Hollywood Strafing Procedure: Used to attack a German train at the start of the film. Lightning protests that it would be smarter (and safer) to attack the train head-on instead, due to the presence of Anti-Air gunners on the train.
  • Stereotype Flip:
    • In an Ironic Echo to a previous scene, some of the black pilots are walking past the Officers' Club, where Lightning had previously gotten into a brawl with a large group of racist white officers. A very redneck sounding pilot walks out and shouts at them, seemingly trying to taunt them. He's a grateful bomber pilot wanting to share a drink with the men who saved his crew.
    • Later, a German guard is shown gleefully introducing a POW barracks full of grumpy white officers to their new room mate, very black, and very alone Junior. As soon as the guard leaves, Junior learns that the men there are grateful to have him, because he couldn't possibly be a Nazi spy. And they want him to have a part in their escape.
  • The Stoic: Pretty Boy doesn't let a little thing like pressing an attack on a large formation of heavily defended American bombers get him excited. Moreso, after he is forced to belly-land his plane while pursued by four American fighters, he can be seen calmly and quickly undoing his safety belts, sliding the canopy open, and hopping out of the plane as if digging a ditch across the airfield with his smouldering plane is the way he's supposed to land. He is noticeably and understandably upset by the destruction of his airfield soon after.
  • Stuff Blowing Up
  • Token Minority: Inverted. One of Colonel Bullard's closest allies in Washington is a white Colonel who fights tenaciously to maintain support for the unit.
  • Token Religious Teammate: Deacon
  • War Is Hell:
    • Played straight in the film's prologue, showing a formation of bombers being torn to shreds by the Luftwaffe fighters.
    • And subverted in the very next scene, with four of the 332nd Fighter Group's fighters on patrol, with one of the pilots complaining that what they are doing is boring as hell.

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