Die Schwarzen Adler von Santa Fe (1965)

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Reviewed Movie: Black Eagle of Santa Fe (Germany, 1965) Original title: Die Schwarzen Adler von Santa Fe / I gringos non perdonano Directed by: Ernst Hofbauer / Alberto Gardone Starring Brad Harris, Horst Frank, Olga Schoberová, Tony Kendall (aka Luciano Stella)

In December 1962 the movie “Der Schatz im Silbersee”, based on a story by german novellist Karl May, was released. It became a smash hit – for the first time, a European production had managed to create a successful Western movie. The “Eurowestern” craze was on, and other german production companies wanted in on that lucrative market. And since the coveted Karl May licenses were already taken, they had to come up with “original” ideas of their own…

About the movie

By 1965, the Eurowestern boom had hit its stride – at least as far as Western German productions were concerned. “Der Schatz im Silbersee”, released in 1962, had been the first german Western of that era. The following year saw two more hit cinemas: One another Karl May adaptation, the other an unrelated Western based on another adventure novel by a fellow German author from the same time period. When those also proved successful, a veritable stampede of German Western movies raced across Europe: 1964 would see 8, 1965 even 11 so-called “Krautwesterns” unleashed on the masses.

As many other Westerns of its kind, “Die Schwarzen Adler von Santa Fe” was less a german movie, more a german-led co-production. Even though most Westerns had been relegated to B-movie-status for US production standards, they still were relatively expensive endeavors for European companies. So like many other Eurowesterns of its day, this one was a joint German-French-Italian effort. This movie does stand out from most movies of this kind though by not being an adaptation of an adventure model, but by being based on an original (albeit reworked) screenplay by the experienced Western screenwriter Jack Lewis.

Unlike the more famous Karl-May-Westerns though, “Black Eagle” wasn’t shot in Yugoslavia – while the studio lot recordings were made in Prague in then-Czechoslovakia (the modern-day Czech republic), the scenic shots were done in the outskirts of Madrid. This also resulted in quite the multicolored cast, most of whom had to be re-dubbed for both the original and international releases: One of the male leads and the main villain were german for example, while the female lead was Czech, the main henchman Swiss, his accomplices French and the name-giving Indian Chief “Black Eagle” was played by an Italian actor with an english screen name. The main lead, however, was actualla a bona-fide, born and bred US-American from Idaho: Brad Harris. He was not a trained actor, but an experienced stuntman, so he brought three important assets to the role:

  1. He was American, which gave the movie some actual “Western cred”.
  2. As an experienced stuntman, he knew how to do action and fight scenes, something Eurowesterns typically lacked when compared to their role models from the US.
  3. What he lacked in acting chops, he made up for with, well, these:
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I asked the Missus for her opinion on the actor, but all she said was “rrrrrrrrrrr… woof!”

Speaking of action scenes, the movie lists one “Alfredo Cardone” as its “Director for action scenes”. Which is probably a typo, since the Italian version of the movie, “I Gringos non perdonano”, names one “Albert Cardiff” as its MAIN director. This, respectively, was the screen name of the rather prolific spaghetti Western director ALBERTO Cardone. The director for the german version, meanwhile, is listed as one “Ernst Hofbauer” in the credits, who as far as I could tell did not direct a single further Western in his career. However, soon after this movie he would find his true calling as a director of Softporn flicks, most notably the majority of the infamous german series of “Schulmädchen Report” films.

Also of note is a special credit for the German “Schlager”-star Ronny, who has a particularly noteworthy small role in this film. I believe it’s fair to say that his appearance is a true showstopper, though not neccessarily for the right reasons. But more on that later. (A little warning: There will be spoilers from here on out. Click here if you want to head straight to the Spoiler-free conclusion).

The Plot

Getting back to the matter of action scenes: One area where Eurowesterns, and German Westerns in particular, were usually critized and unfavorably compared to the US productions where fight and action sequences – mostly because not many European film productions had much experience in these fields at the beginning of the decade, outside of a few sword-and-sandal movies maybe. The makers of “Black Eagle of Santa Fe” seem to have taken this criticism to heart. We are only two minutes in, a blonde lady barely gets two sentences out stating that she lives at a nearby farm (thus doing the bare minumum of establishing her as potential female love interest as per Western Cliché no. 27), when there’s a loud yell of “Indians”, followed by a seven-minute fight-and-chase sequence. We did not even get the name of the town yet before it gets thoroughly raided and all settlers driven out. One clearly can see that the movie had its own “Director of action scenes” when it wants to make sure you see every single daring jump from horseback or leap through a window pane, to such a degree that the white settlers don’t even know what to shoot at.

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“Don’t shoot until you see the shards of glass in his eyes!”

All joking aside, the action is actually quite well done, even though the sequence drags on quite a bit. Anyways, thus overwhelmed by the sudden attack by the Indians, the otherwise help- and spineless townspeople (scratch one more off the Western Cliché list) flee to a nearby Fort of the US Cavalry.

And what an amazing Fort that is! By which I don’t mean the scenery, which is alright, if sometimes a bit slipshod (in some scenes you can still see the support beams that prop up the walls), but the sheer dimensions of this “small military outpost”. Despite currently only staffed by 25 men, as the Captain mentions, it still houses and operates, amongst other things:

  • stables not just for the Cavalry, but also for the carriages and horses of the settlers seeking shelter,
  • a bathhouse with multiple bathtubs,
  • a ‘typical frontier style’ saloon, run by a local lady and an elderly, slighty demented old feller called “Old Buddy”, that also comes with its own saloon gals and guestrooms (that still are available to rent even while there’s a refugee situation going on – and yes, of course they serve whiskey and beer in the saloon… inside the military oupost),
  • a dancehall, and
  • an impressive network of roads, considering that the local Sergeant states that the bathhouse can be found in the 80th Street(!).

As far as we know, this Fort has more operating businesses than the raided nearby town had.

We are soon introduced to our hero, Cliff McPherson, who is a “specialist against Indian attacks” sent in directly from Washington, who can identify the attacking Indians as Comanche solely on the type of arrows they use.

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Like the one decoratively placed here.

Anyways, within the next ten minutes we get the setup and all of the major players on this film: Fort Eagle Rock is under siege, and even though the place is huge (as stated earlier), Captain Johnson only has 25 soldiers at his disposal to protect more than 200 people; “80% of which women and children”, for some reason. Mc Pherson immediately assumes that the Comanche wouldn’t have attacked for no reason, so someone must’ve provoked the Indians into attacking. This immediately cuts to a scene where three riders dressed as Cavalrymen (led by a shifty fellow called “Gentleman”) first harass and then shoot three Comanche Indians, letting a fourth escape deliberately.

This might have been a nice setup for some intrigue and a whodunnit kind of investigative story – hadn’t we already learned that said Gentleman works for a local rancher named Morton, who earlier in the film had not only refused Captain Johnson help in defending the Fort, but has also already chummed around with two wanted outlaws named “Slim” and “Blacky”. All this within just the first 15 Minutes of the film – the movie certainly doesn’t leave much time to properly set up characters and plot points.

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Also, an apparently needless and overtly careless reloading sequence after the Indians were murdered actually serves as a plot point in the movie, though probably not quite for the reason you’d expect.

The murder on the Indians was witnessed by our next major character. The movie spends a bit more time on introducing him: He refuses to give his name to the Sergeant when he arrives at the Fort, punches him in the face in front of his men when the latter decides to trip the wiseass up, nonchalantly kicks a guy in the backside when he sits his dusty ass down in the Fort’s Saloon, and orders three whiskeys when two other guys flank him at the bar only to proceed to drink them all by himself. Yet somehow, none of these actions get him arrested, start a brawl or even get him into some minor squabble – no one even adresses any of this. This bundle of charms is called Blake Carpenter, a reporter from Fresno, and we are probably supposed to like him and believe him to be a badass, because he is going to be the hero’s sidekick from here on out.

He asks the Saloon lady to draw him a hot bath, and the movie continues it’s special style of incredibly blunt clever segues to immediately cut to our hero, Cliff McPherson, getting ready for a hot bath himself.

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You’re welcome, Ladies.

It’s also where he meets Miss Lana Miller “of the Sunshine Ranch”, the blonde shopper from earlier (who had stated before that she lived on a farm, but let’s not sweat details here… the movie certainly doesn’t), whom he engages in some awkward conversation (requisite with awful punning along the lines of “I’m just here to get my soap” – “You’re a dirty man” – “Yes, I am dirty. That’s why I need the soap”.). With this we can also check off the “innocent blonde farm girl love interest” from our Western cliché card.

As McPherson leaves the bath again, one of Morton’s henchmen (a guy named Pascal) sneaks up on him with a knife. Carpenter, who had just been antagonizing the Fort’s Captain (because why be likeable now?) sees that, and without knowing anybody involved, he draws his revolver and shoots at the would-be assailant. The Reporter and the “Indian attack specialist” bond over the attempted murder, and the two of them decide to try and find out what or who had riled the Comanche into attacking the settlers; apparently neither of them trusts the Cavalry right now (no wonder, I mean shots have been fired in the fort, and yet nobody bothers to check what had happened, even though Carpenter had only talked to the captain a mere 30 seconds ago…). But then again, this is the logic on which this movie operates: Good guys and bad guys immediately recognize one another without knowing each other beforehand, while neutral leaders like the Captain of the Cavalry or the Chief of the Comanche are inherently blockheaded and refuse to talk things out or listen to reason.

Speaking of the Comanche, in case there was any doubt left, we cut to Rancher Morton hand-delivering the two Indians shot by his henchman to the Indian camp, and uses the opportunity to try and goad their chief, Black Eagle, into attacking the Fort (and he goes about it more bluntly than a sledgehammer; his line of arguing immediately goes from “Me and my men just happened to find these two dead Indians” to “the Fort is only defended by 25 soldiers! If you attack now, they don’t stand a chance”. Three sentences.).

German Westerns usually go for the “noble savage” characterization when portraying native Americans, and Chief Black Eagle isn’t much different (check another off of the cliché list). However, 30 Minutes into this movie, he is by far the most intelligent character present. He knows when he’s up against superior forces (using phrases like “25 rifles are stronger than 400 arrows”), he consults with his shaman before attacking in anger, and doesn’t allow himself to be goaded even when Morton tries to appeal to his pride – too bad he never tries talking with the settlers or the cavalry, though. Still, in the end he relents and says that if the Navajo were willing to ally themselves with the Comanche, then he would consider attacking.

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Rancher Morton (Werner Peters, right) tries to goad ‘Chief Black Eagle’ (Tony Kendall) into attacking peaceful settlers. This was actually the second time the Italian (born Luciano Stella) played that character – he had also appeared as Chief Black Eagle two years earlier in “Pirates of the Mississippi”.

And why is Morton going through all that trouble? The Indians have found crude oil on their reservation, which the army doesn’t know about. So he hired his henchman ‘gentleman’ to get the Indians riled up, so that the army would have to respond in full measure and drive them off their reservation. Then, he can snatch up the land and its petroleum ressources, and his henchmen would get his daughter, Cora, for a wife. That… sounds like something that would’ve happened in the Old West. Finally, something that makes sense in this movie.

However the movie spoils that in the way our heroes find out that someone is trying to frame the Cavalry. Carpenter shows McPherson where he saw the cavalrymen shooting the Indians – and promptly stumbles upon the .45 bullet casings Gentlemen needlessly dropped to the ground earlier. This immediately clues our heroes in that something must be fishy about these Cavalrymen. Why, you ask?

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And apparently smelling the bullet gives you a hint on who fired it – or maybe McPhearson just enjoys the smell of spent gunpowder.

Because, as our heroes conclude: “Since when do men in uniform carry Colts? Or the other way round: Since when do men with Colts wear uniforms?”

Yes. This german Western would have its audience believe that Cavalrymen don’t wear Colts. Never mind the fact that the .45 Colt Cartridge was originally specifically made for use in the US army. The best part is that even the Cavalry Captain confirms that issue once they finally speak to him about what they found out. Because according to him, “Soldiers only carry rifles”.

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Pictured: The 1873 .45 caliber Colt Single Action Army. Also, colts were widely used in the Army from 1860 onwards and were the most prevalent handgun in the army during the Civil War. I wonder whether the filmmakers ever looked at real photos of Cavalry soldiers, and if so, whether they ever asked themselves what that strange holster was these men wore at their hip…

Anyways, our heroes inform the Captain and immediately jump to the conclusion that Morton must be behind the sharade. Why? Because “the only men with Colts around here are with Morton”. Aside from our heroes, of course. And old Buddy, the old man in the Saloon whom we had earlier seen pointlessly playing around with not one, but two revolvers. In fact, pretty much any random extra seen in the Saloon is carrying a revolver – but who knows, maybe McPherson has already sniffed out every single man in the Fort and concluded that those weren’t Colts but Remingtons or whatever.

Still, the charade isn’t over yet: First, Morton had fake cavalrymen kill Indians in order to present the Indians with evidence of the Cavalry’s aggression. So what’s his plan for Slim & Blacky? He has them wear Cavalry uniforms – and then has Gentleman shoot them with arrows.

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He gets to kill Indians as a fake Cavalryman, and then shoots fake Cavalrymen with arrows… best of both worlds!

So Morton intends to pass these two dead men off as soldiers killed by Indians. Only one problem: The two have already been in the Fort and interacted with several people there. So there are already plenty of people who know that they weren’t soldiers. The only thing this would accomplish would be to make the affair even look more suspicious.

But anyway, that’s the situation. The Indians believe that their men were killed by the Cavalry. And the Cavalry should also believe that their men were killed by Indians. The Fort is understaffed, and a threat of two Indian tribes forming an Alliance and preparing for a deadly attack looms at the horizon? What should we do now?

How about a MUSICAL INTERLUDE?

Yes, while the Fort is under siege and everyone fears that the Indians might attack any second, the movie takes a two-minute break for Schlager-singer Ronny, who hasn’t appeared in the film before (and won’t again after this scene). In the 1960s it was not uncommon to include a performance from a famous singer into a movie to bolster its attractivity – in the days before YouTube or MTV, this was pretty much the closest to a Music Video audiences got. So if you wanted to hear your favorite singer, you could always buy a movie ticket. The movie could advertise the singer on its marquee, and the singer got some free promotion and maybe a small boost to his record sales. Sometimes the musical interlude is well integrated and may even have some relevance to the plot, other times… not so much.

Watching Ronny listlessly play the guitar and lipsync to his own song “Kenn ein Land”, with lots of studio reverb while sitting out in the open air, has almost a comedic sight to it. Still, at least the song has a somewhat Western theme (two friends love the same woman, one challenges the other to a duel, the challenger gets killed, the other one has to flee and noone gets the girl in the end) – while it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot, at least it somehow fits into the setting. Also, the promotion worked out, at least for Ronny: When “Die Schwarzen Adler von Santa Fe” premiered in German cinemas, the single record of “Kenn ein Land” (as a B-Side to Ronny’s earlier hit “Kleine Annabelle”) actually topped the German Single Charts. So yeah, if anything in the movie is a hit, it’s the two-minute musical interlude. While England had the Beatles, and the US had Elvis, Germany had… this.

The song is cut off in the end by two soldiers announcing that the festivities are about to begin. What festivities, you ask? Well, without it being mentioned before, in the midst of the Indian crisis, under siege and with hardly any men to defend the fort, apparently the Captain decided to throw a shindig with music and dance “to keep spirits up”. One character – Cora, rancher Morton’s daughter – argues that this has something to do with “higher diplomacy”; which is funny because the Captain never even attempted regular diplomacy when it came to the Indian attacks, but whatever. At least the man has his priorities (or the movie makers thought a Western also had to have a ball scene and didn’t know another way to crowbar it in).

The ball mostly serves to show a few new outfits and for Carpenter to flirt with Morton’s daughter Cora (with such lovely lines such as “I feel gloomy about America’s future when women spray lead all over the place instead of getting children” and “You should rather take up the cooking spoon, that’d be safer”). We also get treated to another action sequence when “Gentleman” sleazily tries to talk up Ms. Lana Miller, McPherson intervenes, and Pascal, the knife assailant from earlier, uses this moment to attack McPherson from behind (I guess we can also scratch “obligatory saloon fight” from the Cliché list as well). The good guys remain triumphant, the bad guys ride back to the ranch to report to Morton, and our heroes sneakily (by which I mean on horseback, in full gallop – there doesn’t seem to be another gait horses have in this film) follow them.

They arrive just in time for McPherson to sneak onto the premises and overhear Morton discuss his plans with Chief Black Eagle: To ride into the Fort the next morning under the pretense of “helping out”, then opening the gates for the Indians instead. McPherson gets caught and brought inside, and is again threatened by Pascal but rescued by Carpenter, for the third time now.

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Maybe its just me, but I don’t think “Wildly shooting into a building during galopp” isn’t exactly the wisest course of action in this situation.

McPherson escapes, though he gets wounded, but that would still mean he could warn the Fort of the plan, right? No, because as fate would have it, Gentleman and his men run into a messenger from the Governor while pursuing our heroes: The Navajo have joined forces with the Comanche. So when McPherson finally gets to warn the Captain, Morton’s men have already intercepted the message and sent someone else, with orders from the governor that the Fort has to be evacuated “within an hour”. It’s not quite clear whether these were the actual original orders or if they are fake (and if so, how could Morton and his gang come up with a counterfeit message so quickly), but the result is the same: Even though they are vastly outnumbered, the Captain gives the order to ride to Santa Fe, leading the soldiers and the settlers out in the open. Where, of course, once they reach a mountain pass (check), they run into an ambush by both the Navajo and Morton’s men.

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“Umm… Captain? I thought men in uniform only use rifles?”

McPherson rides to the Comanche to convince chief Black Eagle that he has been misled, where Gentleman is currently trying to presure the Comanche into joining the fight as well. It’s here where we get treated to a type of speech that would be typical for the romanticized german view on the American Western: The “White Chief in Washington” wants peace and coexistance with the Native Americans. It’s only greedy bandits who are attacking or robbing the Indians and blaming innocent settlers or the army for their deeds. To prove his point, McPherson falls back on the “Soldiers don’t carry Colts” argument from earlier, finally convincing chief Black Eagle that he had been had. (I mean, this kind of arguing would have been more believable if the villain carried an unusual type of revolver, like a LeMat or a Colt Buntline Special, and they made a point about the unusualness of that type of gun. But no, we are talking just run-of-the-mill .45 caliber cartridge Colt handguns here.)

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His line of argument literally is “this bullet casing that I claim to have found where your men have been killed is identical to the bullets on that man’s gunbelt, and nobody else has this type of ammunition”. And it works!

So instead of attacking the soldiers and settlers, the Comanche now decide to come to their aid. And not a moment to soon, as the situation is dire indeed. An injured Carpenter manages to make his way into the back of the attacking bandits however, though his biggest accomplishment probably is when he accidentally tosses Cora, rancher Morton’s (innocent, I might add!) daughter, not out of but into the way of an oncoming bullet.

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Our hero, everybody.

But in the end the settlers and soldiers are saved by the advancing Comanche. Morton (who for some reason was personally present at the attack) tries to escape, but gets trapped by Chief Black Eagle at a crag, where thy both plummet to their deaths.

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And thus the movie draws to its end. Our heroes are wounded, but remain triumphant. Carpenter even still manages to get a few quips in (even though he had directly caused an innocent woman’s death just a few moments ago, the git). However, there is still a sad note when they discover the dead chief Black Eagle. The Comanche and the soldiers just load his corpse onto a horse together, and the Indians leave without uttering a word.

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Here’s something you probably won’t see in an American Western though: Cavalry Soldiers saluting a dead Indian Chief. Too bad the Indians have their backs turned on them and won’t see the gesture, though.

The Verdict

“Black Eagle of Santa Fe” claims to be based on a screenplay by an Anerican Western Writer, but it is streaked through and through by the same kind of romantization that you would find in the German Karl May novels: The good heroes are friends of the Natives. The bad guys are lead by a greedy rich man who wants to get at some settlers (or in this case, the Comanche’s) land. The cavalry is here to protect the innocent but doesn’t act unless ordered to. Indians are noble, some of them even wise, and don’t attack unless provoked – however they are naive and easily misled, which doesn’t really make them appear in a less insulting light.

“Naive” is probably a good way to describe the movie as a whole. The film feels more like a make-believe adventure played by kindergarten children who make up facts as they go, rather than an authentic tale from the Wild West (Cowboys only ride in gallop, the Cavalry’s duty is to protect women and children, all bad guys wear black or at least dark hats, and “men in uniform don’t use Colts”).

Another way of seeing things would be that the filmmakers just stuck in typical Western details – or what they believed were typical for a Western – wherever they felt like, without any regard whether it’d make sense to do so (like having both a fully operational regular Saloon and a bathhouse for the public inside a Fort of the US army, or a ball taking place during a siege that is suddenly announced out of nowhere but apparently “had been planned for weeks”). After some scenes I was sure that at some point before filming took place, some assistant must have dropped the script before it could get stapled, and got some scenes out of order when he picked the pages up again. Because I am sure the movie would have worked better if the sequence of some scenes would take place in a different order. Sometimes plot-relevant events or questions – like, who might the villain be – get answered before even the protagonists get to ask them. It’s like the filmmakers didn’t trust their audience to put 1 and 1 together. The target audience may probably have been children who like youth adventure novels, but even then the film feels just clumsy.

The movie jumps from one scene to the next as soon as somebody utters an appropriate keyword (someone asks for a bath – we jump to a bath scene. Someone assumes the Indians may have been attacked – we jump to a scene where Indians are attacked). All this leaves no time for a decent setup, and all the characters are two-dimensional at best and can be summarized in five words or less (“The Indian Friend”, “The black-hat henchman”, “The greedy rancher”, “his feisty daughter”, “The blonde farm girl”, “bad guy with a knife”…) I guess Blake Carpenter, our main protagonists sidekick, is the most complex character of them all – because he acts like a jackass the entire time, but we are still supposed to like him. Also, while Westerns usually are viewed as sexist and macho, normally that’s because the screenwriters neglected to write strong female characters and thus relegate them to damsel-in-distress-status. This movie, however, goes even further. You have only three female characters who get lines of dialogue: One is the Saloon keeper who acts like she’d run a corner pub (and who, appropriately enough, has a Berlin accent to go along with that attitude), another one is the farmer’s daughter who is little more than eye candy and only gets to act as the main protagonists love interest. And the only female character who gets a more active role gets belittled for actually picking up a gun and is told by one of our heroes that her place in life is to cook and get children – classy! Even for 1965 that feels regressive.

One a more positive note though, the movie gets on with such a fast pace that you hardly get any time to stumble over all the mistakes and plot holes it makes along the way. The action sequences drag on a bit, but for a german movie made in the 1960s they are not bad. And how many Westerns are out there that can claim that they feature a chart-topping hit song? Yes, it brings the movie to a complete halt and was implemented with all the sublety of a crowbar to the forehead, but still…

Rating

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The story is neither particularly original nor well-told. But the Action is decent, and occasionally the movie straddles the line into “so-bad-it’s-good”-territory by hilariously misinterpreting “Western facts”. But the characters aren’t particularly likeable (aside from maybe chief Black Eagle himself, who doesn’t get much screentime and also comes off as one-note and a bit bland), and the way it treats female characters leaves a bit of a bad taste – it doesn’t objectify them, but actively belittling them certainly isn’t better. For a grade schooler who is into “Cowboys and Indians” playground stories it may suffice though. And people who enjoy 50-year-old crooner songs may also get two minutes of pleasure out of it.

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