Trench mis­ery recre­ated

Hob­bit star Dean O’Gor­man is cov­ered in mud be­cause he’s wor­ried peo­ple will for­get how bad war was, writes Glenn McCon­nell.

Sunday Star-Times - - A10 FOCUS WWI CENTENARY -

He has had a long and suc­cess­ful act­ing ca­reer, in­clud­ing work on movies such as The Hob­bit and Pork Pie, but to­day Dean O’Gor­man wal­lows in mud.

The actor pulls a sledge­ham­mer above his head and teenage boys watch as it comes smash­ing down on a pile of dirty bricks. The de­bris rolls into mud-pool obliv­ion and O’Gor­man chuck­les.

The more mess, the bet­ter. ‘‘I had a dig­ger in,’’ he says. ‘‘They had to re­ally de­stroy this.’’

The boys are cov­ered in mud, their khaki-green uni­forms splat­tered with it. O’Gor­man’s car is cov­ered in mud. A wa­ter pump has smeared dirt along the can­vas and sit­ting by the open boot, a young man car­ries on count­ing bul­lets re­gard­less.

For the last 10 years or so, O’Gor­man has been split­ting his time be­tween act­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy.

This is an­other of those pho­tog­ra­phy projects, in­volv­ing recre­at­ing his own Pass­chen­daele bat­tle­field next to Auck­land Air­port.

It fol­lows a doc­u­men­tary in which O’Gor­man in­ves­ti­gates the 1917 Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele.

They call the en­gage­ment ‘‘some of New Zealand’s dark­est hours’’, with a huge loss of life in those Bel­gian trenches. Records show 843 New Zealan­ders died within a few hours.

O’Gor­man is now look­ing to recre­ate the scenes as a trib­ute.

He has dug up a farm, a friend’s prop­erty near the air­port. The trenches have be­come grotty, muddy pools and O’Gor­man ex­pects his mostly young mod­els to get in them.

Wind belts the pad­dock so roughly that the ‘‘war horses’’ O’Gor­man has or­gan­ised for the shoot have been de­layed. Yet O’Gor­man scut­tles around the mud piles re­gard­less, wheel­ing out barbed wires and planks. The con­di­tions, he has dis­cov­ered, were far worse back in 1917.

Young men and their horses drowned in the trenches, the mud im­mo­bil­is­ing troops. They were fight­ing not only Ger­many but na­ture.

‘‘It was shelled and bombed so much that the ground was dis­sem­i­nated, it was just shell holes and wa­ter,’’ O’Gor­man says.

The Pass­chen­daele project, started in Fe­bru­ary when NZ On Air and The Cana­dian Me­dia Fund gave O’Gor­man and his crew just over $430,000, is al­ready live, with the in­ter­ac­tive doc­u­men­tary Spurred On.

‘‘I have al­ways had an in­ter­est in World War I,’’ O’Gor­man says, but ad­mits he knew lit­tle about the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele un­til this project be­gan.

In the doc­u­men­tary, O’Gor­man fol­lows the sto­ries of five Welling­ton brothers who share his sur­name. ‘‘For it to only mat­ter if you’re re­lated to some­one, that may be a lit­tle self­ish,’’ he re­marks.

O’Gor­man’s in­ter­est in re­search­ing and recre­at­ing as­pects of World War I goes back a long time. He pho­tographed his grand­fa­ther, a World War II vet­eran, for an ear­lier project. And he shot por­traits for an ear­lier ver­sion of The Pass­chen­daele Project, with mod­els dressed as sol­diers in a bleak stu­dio.

O’Gor­man or­gan­ises th­ese shoots through scroung­ing from friends and strangers. ‘‘They’re re­ally happy to help out with some­thing like this,’’ he says.

One of the young men, soon to be ly­ing in cold, muddy wa­ter, is 19-yearold Ben Ge­den. Sol­dier-for-a-day Ben is in this muddy hole be­cause he served O’Gor­man cof­fee once.

In be­tween work­ing in film, O’Gor­man finds time to con­struct th­ese en­vi­ron­ments for still pho­tog­ra­phy. ‘‘It works pretty well to­gether, the cam­era is pretty por­ta­ble so I tend to take it most places when I’m shoot­ing,’’ he says. And he does get around: be­fore se­cur­ing fund­ing for Spurred On he was in Los An­ge­les. The re­make of Good­bye Pork Pie, in which O’Gor­man plays a lead­ing role, was re­leased in Fe­bru­ary. ‘‘It’s been a good year,’’ he says – plenty of work.

Now that those films have been re­leased, O’Gor­man is fo­cus­ing on pho­tog­ra­phy. ‘‘I’m not su­per good when I split my fo­cus,’’ he says. It took about three weeks just to set up this small mud pit. Then the actor spent days in the wind, wait­ing for the sun to reach the right point.

When the props, the gear and the crew are funded al­most en­tirely from O’Gor­man’s pocket, why does he do this? ‘‘It’s just a pas­sion project,’’ he says.

The actor reck­ons it’s worth los­ing a few dol­lars for th­ese pho­tos be­cause, as we en­ter the 100th an­niver­sary of the Bat­tle for Pass­chen­daele, he wants peo­ple to ask why th­ese sol­diers died.

‘‘The pho­tos are about New Zealan­ders’ in­volve­ment in Pass­chen­daele, but also war in gen­eral. That was one bat­tle where a lot of New Zealan­ders fought and a lot of New Zealan­ders died. It brings up some very poignant ques­tions about why did we go there and what did it mean?’’

Th­ese days, O’Gor­man thinks Ki­wis wouldn’t be so will­ing to fight like they did. If pol­i­tics changed, and his­tory re­peated though, he wants th­ese pho­tos and th­ese 100-year-old sto­ries to be re­mem­bered.

is live now at SpurredOn.nz, read more there or in our se­ries of sto­ries at Stuff.

Spurred On

PHO­TOS: CHRIS SKEL­TON/STUFF

Actor and pho­tog­ra­pher Dean O’Gor­man is recre­at­ing scenes from Pass­chen­daele.

The actor con­vinced strangers, stu­dents and friends to get into muddy holes filled with freez­ing wa­ter. He says it’s been sur­pris­ingly easy.

O’Gor­man has starred in The Hob­bit, Good­bye Pork Pie and West­side, but also takes still pho­to­graphs.

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