Band of Angels

“You talk about freedom. You think I’ve got freedom? I’ve got a past I’d like to forget, but I can’t run away from it. No more than you can run away from what you are.”

The essence of that piece of dialogue, if not the exact words, forms the bedrock of many a drama. As with a fly trapped in amber, cinematic drama gives us a moment captured on celluloid, preserved for our scrutiny, superficially isolated in time. Yet those moments we return to with every successive viewing give the lie to that; the poignancy or power of each example exists and is dependent on what came before, and on the suggestion of where it might lead. The latter is necessarily unknowable in the majority of cases, as in life. And as in life, the former, the touch and influence, perhaps even the bonds represented by the past, helps to shape the course of the present. Band of Angels (1957) explores this eternal link between that which has been and that which is; it is the collision of past and present, presented within the emotive framework of racial conflict and prejudice, which adds a timeless quality to the film’s core themes.

It seems appropriate that a movie so concerned with the idea of straining against the shackles of one’s former life should begin with the image of two slaves stumbling in desperation across a Kentucky plantation with overseers and hounds in hot pursuit. Flash forward some years and the daughter of the plantation owner Amantha Starr (Yvonne De Carlo) returns to attend the funeral of her father. It is at this point that her ordered and structured world is rent asunder, the significance of her mother’s grave being in a different section of the plantation brought home with jarring force as she learns that not only is she of mixed race but that the status she once took for granted is now forfeit. Instead she is now to be designated as property, denied full human dignity and sold as one might sell some personal belongings. Driven to the point of suicide by the shock and horror of what lies before her, this woman is thrown what at first appears to be an unlikely lifeline. She is bought by  Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), a wealthy man who installs her in his household under somewhat unusual terms. In truth, his domestic arrangements are generally unusual; his housekeeper (Carolle Drake) and his assistant Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier) both have a complex, and in the latter’s case a volatile relationship with Bond. As the country lurches into the chaos and tumult of the Civil War, the nature of these varied relationships will be tested, torn and reshaped by the trauma of conflict, and the truths about the past lives of all the principals must be dragged under the spotlight to be confronted and addressed if freedom in any real sense is to be secured.

On one level Band of Angels can be approached as an examination of the Civil War and the racial conflicts that surround it, and this is certainly the aspect that is immediately recognizable. However, to dwell on that alone would make for a superficial reading of the movie, marrying it to the concerns of a bygone era in a way that distances it and so waters down the impact. Of course the period setting grounds the story and affords it an historical and practical value, but I would argue that this acts as a conduit for the deeper, more constant message concerning the probing of the past and the absorption of its lessons, thus allowing the future to be met with hope. All through the story the past is revisited, either implicitly via the lewd whispered reminiscences of a slave girl (a bit part for Juanita Moore and radically different to her famous role in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life), or explicitly in the returns to various locations. Perhaps one of the most telling of these occurs when De Carlo finds herself back in the New Orleans house she first came to before the war – the structure is still there and she is even wearing the same costume but the fighting has brought significant changes, not only in terms of atmosphere (beautifully rendered by the subtle shifts in lighting by Lucien Ballard) but also personnel. There is considerable irony in both the fact that Poitier is seated in the chair once occupied by Gable and the way the passage of time has affected his attitudes.

The movie could have settled for some trite commentary on the way authority corrupts, or perhaps the dangers of becoming that which one despises. However, the central theme is much more engaging and forward looking. That theme, filtered through the prism of racial tension, is one of achieving growth and progression on a personal level, and I guess by extension on a wider societal level, not by cutting off or artificially isolating the past though; rather, it is about reaching an accommodation with what came before, whereby some emotional equilibrium may be attained.

The cast is strong and well chosen but Clark Gable dominates it all. There is much to appreciate in Gable’s late career performances, that indomitable spirit tempered by experience and loss was powerfully effective given the right material. Of his three collaborations with Raoul Walsh, only The King and Four Queens feels disposable and both Band of Angels and The Tall Men are fine movies. There are, to my mind, a number of standout scenes that give him an opportunity to shine. The first takes place in the courtyard of his New Orleans house and is almost stolen by a flamboyant Torin Thatcher. With a storm brewing in the background and Thatcher grandstanding for all he’s worth, Gable sinks into brooding intensity as the ghosts of his youth come scratching at his conscience. Next, when confronted by Patric Knowles’ craven braggart who is spoiling for a duel, he burrows mercilessly into the other man’s insecurities to destroy him psychologically. Later, after supervising the systematic torching of his own plantation, he delves deep into his own tortured past to explain to De Carlo why there can be no marriage between them. The matter-of-fact way he narrates the horrors he both saw and participated in is superbly delivered, as he sits ragged and spent amid the tarnished splendor his actions bought for him. Finally, there is the climactic confrontation with Poitier, the latter consumed with righteous hatred and hungry for retribution. It builds terrifically, with Gable’s calm resignation lulling both the viewer his co-star before the hugely satisfying resolution arrives. It’s a wonderfully played scene, a credit to the skills of Poitier and Gable.

Warner Brothers released a very attractive DVD of Band of Angels quite a few years ago and it still holds up well. My impression is that Raoul Walsh’s antebellum melodrama enjoys a mixed critical reputation at best. Personally, I rate it highly and regard it as one of the director’s best later works. There are those who say Walsh was a great action director, and there’s truth in that assertion. However, he was much more than that, he was a great observer and director of human drama, and this is a movie which has more than its fair share of that quality.

61 thoughts on “Band of Angels

  1. Colin, I really enjoyed reading this very thought provoking write-up of BAND OF ANGELS(1957). You have reviewed this movie in a very different way than most reviewers. I like that you don’t limit your view to just the most obvious level. I really like what you have written here, so I think it is so worth repeating. “On one level Band of Angels can be approached as an examination of the Civil War and the racial conflicts that surround it, and this is certainly the aspect that is immediately recognizable. However, to dwell on that alone would make for a superficial reading of the movie, marrying it to the concerns of a bygone era in a way that distances it and so waters down the impact. Of course the period setting grounds the story and affords it an historical and practical value, but I would argue that this acts as a conduit for the deeper, more constant message concerning the probing of the past and the absorption of its lessons, thus allowing the future to be met with hope.” Yes, I think this is a viewpoint that you won’t find much of anywhere else.

    I think that what you write about concerning the central theme is letter perfect, especially in todays “cancel culture” woke mindset of many, but not all. I think that your viewpoint of the central theme is worth repeating. “That theme, filtered through the prism of racial tension, is one of achieving growth and progression on a personal level, and I guess by extension on a wider societal level, not by cutting off or artificially isolating the past though; rather, it is about reaching an accommodation with what came before, whereby some emotional equilibrium may be attained.” This is top notch thinking and writing. Colin, I commend you for this kind of critique.

    Also, I like that in your wonderful write-up, you didn’t call attention to the particular movie that comes to mind, which evokes comparison. I think that BAND OF ANGELS should, and I think does for the most part, stand on its own hind legs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Walter, as I see it the film operates, and I would argue also succeeds, on multiple levels. Let me be clear, the dominant theme of racial prejudice in and around the Civil War period and beyond is well handled it was certainly not my intention to suggest that it should be diminished or ignored. However, if the film were to be taken solely as an examination of that era and the issues feeding into it and later stemming from it, it would, in my view, limit its scope as an artistic endeavor.

      It has always been my contention that cinema is art, and there is no doubt in my mind that the work of directors of the caliber of Walsh is wholly deserving of that label. For me, cinema becomes art when it transcends the boundaries of topicality, going beyond the contemporary to tackle the constants of human experience and the human condition. When a film is able to do that, then I look on it as art, and where possible I like to focus the spotlight on those timeless features, those themes that have resonance for all viewers no matter where they come from or what their experiences might be. For art to have meaning it must possess universality. I believe the themes underpinning this movie have that quality, raising it to the level of art. I guess what I’m trying to do here is highlight that aspect, which of course should be seen as complementing rather than negating any of the other themes it explores.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Colin, this is why I really like reading your write-ups, because of the thought that you put into it. I would like to see you put all your writings together in book form. I would buy a copy and I think others would, also.

        I like BAND OF ANGELS, because I think it is a splendid movie, but it does take a lot of liberties with its original source material. To give full justice to author Robert Penn Warren’s superlative prose, it would take a mini-series. The movie only retains a few elements from Warren’s 1955 novel and he writes the entire story in first person from the perspective of Amantha Starr, but that is okay with me. We have discussed this before, in that the source material and the movie are two different entities and should be viewed as such. The source novel and movie should stand on their own two hind legs.

        BAND OF ANGELS has a lot going for it and I think it deserves a revaluation. It is worth viewing.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Colin, I need to add that by saying that your excellent write-up of BAND OF ANGELS is a very different way than most reviewers have written about it, is in my opinion a good thing. From what I have read in the past, about this movie, I think the so-called critics didn’t give it a chance, because they kept trying to compare it to GONE WITH THE WIND(filmed 1938-39, released 1939). The critics have called it a “poor man’s GONE WITH THE WIND,” a “ghost of GONE WITH THE WIND,” and whatever other criticism they could think of. They didn’t seem to evaluate it on it’s own merit, because the movie starred Clark Gable and was set in the Antebellum and War of the Rebellion South. So, to them it must have been a GONE WITH THE WIND wannabe and little else. The Warner Bros. publicity department, somewhat played up the GONE WITH THE WIND angle, and many of the critics were laying in wait. Several critics called it a critical failure and later on, to prove their point called the movie a commercial flop, whether it was, or not.

          Again, I think BAND OF ANGELS is due a revaluation.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Colin, you have done it again! You have given us a very beautiful and enjoyable review. That scene of the storm and Torin Thatcher as singled out above reignite my memory thereof. All in all an entertaining movie and great cast.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Must confess, heresy as it may be, that I never really cared for Clark Gable in any film, I just never took to him and have avoided films he was in. Guess I’m missing out, but its an example of why opinions of films can vary so much: sometimes its just a case of individual chemistry and some actors rubbing us up the wrong way through no fault or failing of their own.

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    • Ghost, it would be a dull movie viewing world if we all liked the same actors and actresses. Everyone has their preferences. So, I don’t think it’s heresy for you to not care for Clark Gable in any movie, Although, I like Gable in movies, especially as he got older and more World weary.

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  4. Colin
    Again you hit me with a film I have never seen. Needless to say that it goes on the list for a future watch.

    A De Carlo picture that has evaded me is just plain embarrassing on my part. Well done. Does it show up on TCM at all?

    Gord

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      • Gable was always magnetic, and after all, that is the essence of screen acting. Tall, short, handsome, or homely, you have to draw the eye and in Gable’s case, the ear, although once the movies started to speak, no one who sounded like Robert De Niro had a chance to break out. Wish that were still in play.

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    • Gordon, yes, BAND OF ANGELS does show up on TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES(TCM). The last showing was January 25, 2021 and before that on September 4, 2019. I first viewed it on THE CBS LATE MOVIE in 1974.

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  5. Colin,

    You manage to find value in films that many critics, for whatever reason, are quick to dismiss. I think this is one of your gifts as a chronicler of film. The critics are hard on “Band of Angels” but I found it engaging for all of the reasons you listed in your review. I daresay that, despite the horrors of slavery, it is a romantic, hopeful tale that has application beyond time and place. I believe you pointed this universal quality out in one of your replies. As always, your writing is stellar.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I imagine that there is often a tendency to criticize something for what it is not rather than for what it is. Where possible, I like to focus on the aspects filmmakers aimed for and managed to achieve. That is not to say I wish to ignore major flaws of course. Mind you, this is simply a broad plan, it may not always work out that way… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Frank, you hit the nail on the head. That is what I like about Colin’s write-ups of movies that the so-called critics have dismissed. Colin is a fan of movies and he has literary skills to go along with his fanhood. In fact, I’m envious of Colin’s stellar literary skills.

      Personally, I can only speak for myself, but I think that most of the readers and commenters on this site, and other sites, find a lot of value in the movies and tv shows that the so-called critics have dismissed. I first started reading what these critics had to say when I was a thirteen-year-old youngster growing up and working on our family farm/ranch in the Ozark foothills of the USA. I would read their critiques and later on, after viewing the movies, I would ask myself, “Did those critics view the same movie that I just did?” As individuals, we all have our own likes and dislikes and I think that is part of the beauty of life. What I may like, someone else may not, or vice versa. Although, it is really nice when I like a certain movie, tv show, book, painting, or something else and I share it and someone else likes it, also.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Would it be fair t say that time and distance can alter perspectives of what is viewed? I sometimes write comments on a movie immediately, or very soon after I’ve seen it, but that view isn’t necessarily constant it’s not unusual to find I’ve revised my opinion or shifted my assessment if/when I revisit it much later. Allied to that is the situation surrounding the viewing, I’d have thought it would be hard to view a newly released movie and offer thoughts on it which are entirely divorced from whatever zeitgeist prevails at that time, yet those circumstances will be different if the viewing takes places much later. I guess it comes back to that old truism that the movie doesn’t change, be we do.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Colin, good thought processing here. Yes, I think time and distance can make a difference in our movie viewing experiences, especially if a movie sends us a message of some kind. Also, our personal individual life experiences come into play. Personally, I can only speak for myself, but I’ve had a lot of jobs and career changes over my lifetime, with varied experiences. Hence, I can’t but help to look at things differently than I did at thirteen years-old. Although, there is still a part of my mind that will always be that kid of thirteen.

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      • I would read their critiques and later on, after viewing the movies, I would ask myself, “Did those critics view the same movie that I just did?”

        It’s even worse today because so many modern critics and academics and online reviewers not only violent disapprove of the social attitudes expressed in old movies, in many cases they simply do not understand that social attitudes used to be different. They insist on judging movies according to the political and social values of the 21st century.

        I get so tired of reviewers talking about the “outdated” social attitudes in old movies. If you can’t deal with the fact that social attitudes in the 1940s were different then don’t watch movies from the 40s.

        I was watching Butterfield 8 the other day when it struck me that no-one under 45 would understand anything at all about the movie since the movie is simply incomprehensible if you don’t know something about the social and sexual mores of 1960. They are just not going to understand a single one of the actions and motivations of any of the characters, and they’re simply going to dismiss the movie out of hand.

        OK, Butterfield 8 is not a particularly great movie but it does at least deserve to e understood on its own terms.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oddly enough, I was making some comments elsewhere recently on Maxwell Shane’s The Naked Street which were of a similar nature. In that case, I was referring to a reviewer’s disbelief that Anthony Quinn’s motivation was in any way credible. From a modern perspective, those motivations would indeed appear weak to say the least. I’m of the opinion that wouldn’t have been so for a character of his background n 1955.

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  6. I know I saw this, maybe in the early 80s in Italy, but can’t remember a thing. Will have to remedy that. And yes, agree completely about the later Gable films, made after his MGM contract expired. A very varied bunch but he just oozes charisma in every one, even if the leading ladies seemed to get younger and younger than him (sic). 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A terrific and thought-provoking piece of writing, Colin. I am in company with Gordon in that this film has somehow managed to elude me completely all these years.
    I tend not to read film critics as a rule because their assessments so often differ from my own. I am an unapologetic film fan and I do wonder if some of these critics actually like movies at all.

    You have intrigued me enough, Colin, that I have just sent for a copy. I look forward to a viewing in due course.
    I very much appreciate Gable and especially his post-WW2 work. “COMMAND DECISION” is a terrific example and I find Gable’s performance in his last film, “THE MISFITS” deeply moving.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Barry, somehow, or other, ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY(1949) has eluded me over the years. Although the movie was made and distributed by MGM and I viewed a lot of MGM movies on television back in the 1960’s, ’70’s, and ’80’s. They just didn’t show it in my neck of the woods. I’ve found it online, so on your recommendation I’ll give it a view. The movie has a really good cast and because its from MGM the production values will be top notch.

        COMMAND DECISION(1948) is an outstanding war movie, in my opinion. I first viewed it on the WREC Channel 3 Memphis LATE MOVIE in 1971. I thought it was outstanding then, and I still do.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Walter, regarding Any Number Can Play: It is based on a true story written by the boy’s character grown to adulthood. Very important because this was something that in 1949 commercial films did not handle at all — in life, the Gable character is more or less as depicted, his son is or was gay. Helps to be aware of that, but my guess, you would have picked up on it without my note.

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          • Barry, I viewed ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY(1949) and I enjoyed it. It is well worth viewing and I really liked seeing all the supporting players. These were all fine actors and actresses that made the movie better by their screen presence: Mary Astor, Marjorie Rambeau, Frank Morgan, Barry Sullivan, Lewis Stone, Leon Ames, Edgar Buchanan, Richard Rober, William Conrad, Caleb Peterson, Darryl Hickman, Mickey Knox, Dorothy Comingore, Tommy Bond, and Douglas Fowley. Also, the movie has some neat touches. Where else are you going to observe Gable flipping a spoon into a glass.

            Liked by 1 person

            • The MGM repertory theatre. Mary Astor in a single scene and Leon Ames in two. And Gable’s quite athletic spoon flips. My wife, who had a heart condition and saw Any Number Can Play in its midst for the first time, just went over the moon with it. Thank you, Walter, for your insightful comments, as usual.

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    • Well, I do hope it lives up to the build up then – let me know either way when you get round to it.

      I agree on The Misfits, a wonderful way to go out. I think I mentioned it before and I still have it in mind to write something on Command Decision, possibly as part of a series of posts along with The Dawn Patrol and Twelve O’Clock High or possibly on its own, time and other stuff permitting of course.

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    • I tend not to read film critics as a rule because their assessments so often differ from my own.

      There’s a handful of online reviewers (such as Colin) whose opinions I’ll always listen to because I know their tastes in movies are fairly similar to my own. If they say a movie is worth watching then from my point of view it probably really is worth watching. But I ignore critics in general.

      I particularly avoid critics who want to turn every movie discussion into a debate on politics, or especially sexual politics. I honestly don’t care whether the old movies that I enjoy are considered politically acceptable or not. I certainly don’t need some snotty-nosed twenty-something telling me I’m not allowed to enjoy a movie because it upsets their delicate sensibilities. I’m a big boy. I can cope with movies that include social attitudes that are not identical to my own. When I encounter different social attitudes I don’t start crying and reaching for the smelling salts.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Off topic, but it’s come to my notice that Flicker Alley have a restored version of Alfred L Werker’s Repeat Performance coming out in January.
    The supplements and a few screen captures can be seen here. It looks very attractive indeed, although it’s not cheap.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Colin, this is really good news, because I think REPEAT PERFORMANCE(filmed 1946-47, released 1947) is a really good sleeper of a movie. I first viewed it on the ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT(A & E) Network in 1986 and it also played on the NICK-AT-NITE MOVIE during the 1980’s. REPEAT PERFORMANCE has been considered an obscure, if not lost movie, although it did play on some local ABC affiliate and independent television stations during the 1990’s and early 2000’s in the mid-west, Kentucky, Texas, and California. Some of our Canadian cousins, probably were able to view it on tv during the 1990’s. So, the movie was out there, but as the years went by, the print wasn’t it very good shape. There is a cheap dvd circulating, but it is a money waster.

      Thanks to the Film Noir Foundation, REPEAT PERFORMANCE has been restored in collaboration with the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Packard Humanities Institute. It started making the rounds of the various Noir City Festivals in 2013. In 2019 it made its first appearance on NOIR ALLEY on TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES(TCM). Now, thanks to Flicker Alley we’ll have it on Blu-ray and dvd.

      I don’t want to ruin it for those out there who have never viewed REPEAT PERFORMANCE, but it has some neat twists and turns that are very enjoyable. The cast is impressive with Louis Hayward, Joan Leslie, Virginia Field, Tom Conway, Richard Basehart(his first movie), Natalie Schafer, and Benay Venuta. It’s directed by journeyman Alfred L. Werker, whose movies I like, and script by Walter Bullock from the 1942 novel by William O’Farrell. This movie is small budget movie making at its best from Bryan Foy Productions released by Eagle-Lion Films. It is well worth viewing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I got carried away when referring to REPEAT PERFORMANCE as a small budget movie, because it was a large budget movie for Eagle-Lion Films. Also, I like movies released by Eagle-Lion.

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  9. Off topic here.
    The last couple of months I have been on a viewing binge, of all seasons of the excellent UK Police series, LINE OF DUTY. I started series 6 tonight. The series is filmed in Belfast Ireland. The cast includes, Martin Compston, Vicky McClure,and Adrian Dunbar. A real intense Policer.

    Gord

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  10. First, I definitely recommend “REPEAT PERFORMANCE” and I think the term ‘sleeper’ is just right. Solid little thriller.

    “LINE OF DUTY” has kept UK TV audiences riveted for the past few years and with good reason. You certainly need to be paying attention as the stories are filled with detail and threads that turn up down the line. The police interview scenes are terrific, filmed in long takes in a way that is not done much these days. Superior entertainment.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Easterns vs Westerns

    This weekend I took in a great Samurai film called, THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI, from 1964. I quite enjoy these slice and dice swordplay films. They play out just like the shoot em up dusters we all like. More or less the same stories in both genres with swords replacing the gunplay. This is the first film from director Hideo Gosho, and was a huge hit in Japan. This one, another take on, “THE SEVEN SAMURAI” has 3 down and out Samurai joining a group of starving peasants fighting the crooked local magistrate. This is a nasty, violent film. There is no happy ending here. The print was a first-rate one from Criterion.

    Gord

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  12. Something you good folks might find of interest. Go to You-Tube and enter the following.

    A Conversation with Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. – COLOSSAL PICTURES (1995)

    There is a long talk with Ben and Harry Carey Jr about their life in films etc.

    Gord

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    • I love Ben Johnson! One of my favorite performances of his is that of Chris Calloway. After playing a string of amiable characters in John Ford westerns and in “Mighty Joe Young”, he is ominously convincing as a bullying cowhand in “Shane”. Of course, Calloway has an epiphany and ends up being a good guy. My earliest memories of Harry Carey, Jr. are from watching him in the Walt Disney TV show “The Adventures of Spin and Marty”.

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    • Gordon, thank you for the heads up on this wonderful taped interview A CONVERSATION WITH BEN JOHNSON AND HARRY CAREY, JR(April 22, 1995). I hope every reader of this blog will view it. These were two honest and humble real individuals who worked in the motion picture and television business from the 1940’s-1990’s. They made everything they were in better, by just doing their professional best. They believed in doing a good job and they cared deeply about what was presented on the screen. I could listen to their stories all day. They remind me a lot of all the old-timers I used to know that were born in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They are all gone now, but my memories of them are still with me. They weren’t perfect, but they were the “REAL DEAL” and that made them, both men and women, great role models.

      Here is the site https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6MmRmJ2I58

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  13. Walter
    I love hearing these men just sitting around and telling tales of their life. So interesting. One cannot help but smile during their stories. Great stuff as you say. I thought all the people here would enjoy it.

    Gord

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