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.
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.
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.