Blood on the track

July 19

“Death crouches ‘round every bend. They should have seen it coming.” – Richard Burgess

EVERY NELSONIAN GROWS UP WITH STORIES OF THE MAUNGATAPU MURDERS; THE DEATH MASKS OF THREE OF THE KILLERS ARE ON DISPLAY AT THE NELSON PROVINCIAL MUSEUM. NOW A NEW SHORT FILM, DEATH ROUND EVERY BEND, BRINGS THE WHOLE GORY THING TO THE BIG SCREEN.

(Featured image from Death Round Every Bend Photo Credit: Daniel Allen)

On 13 June 1866, on the Maungatapu Track in a remote corner of the Nelson/Tasman region, four men lay in wait behind the now-infamous Murderers’ Rock. When unsuspecting travellers George Dudley, John Kempthorne, James de Pontius and Felix Mathieu (along with their horse, Old Farmer) came around the bend, were robbed at gunpoint, then shot, strangled and stabbed, and buried where they died. A fifth victim, James Battle, had been murdered after happening across the gang the day before.

The men at Murderer’s Rock were the Burgess Gang: transported convicts Richard Burgess and Thomas Kelly, and their accomplices Joseph Sullivan and Philip Levy. They are now four of Aotearoa’s most notorious killers, but they almost got away with it. With no bodies and a lack of evidence, they might have escaped justice were it not for one of their own: Joseph Sullivan. Sullivan turned informant to save himself and he was spared the noose, unlike the others.

The murders sparked a frenzy of global interest at the time, and they fascinate people to this day. Justin Eade, who wrote the script for the film, explains why the Maungatapu Murders remain intriguing nearly 150 years on: “As a New Zealand Western story of bush-ranging and dark deeds, it stands alone in our history.”

It is a tale with a surplus of dramatic elements. There’s Sullivan turning on his fellow gang members and dobbing them in; Burgess’ confession; a highly charged trial with Burgess and Sullivan going at each other; the remoteness of the crime scene; and the men’s extra-grisly public executions. After the hangings, Burgess, Levy and Kelly were decapitated and plaster moulds made of their heads for phrenological study, a now-discredited practice based on the idea that personality traits were linked to skull shape. Apparently, Kelly’s bumpy head showed him to be “covetous, full of plots, schemes, inventions and intrigues”.

There are questions too. Levy and Kelly, perhaps truthfully, protested their innocence, and both Burgess’ and Sullivan’s accounts are questionable. “It’s also a classic whodunnit, where we still don’t know who actually did the murders and who, if any, were innocent of them. Both Burgess and Sullivan were likely to have been lying,” Justin explains.

Death Round Every Bend is based on the written confession of Burgess, the gang’s leader. “Burgess wrote a lengthy and fairly literary confession on death row, which is what initially drew me to the story,” says Justin. The film is “essentially letting the man speak for himself.”

Richard Burgess’ words are haunting, and they paint a picture of someone who was more than just a stone-cold sociopath. There’s a poetic quality to his words; in fact, on a visit to Nelson in 1895, American author Mark Twain read Burgess’ confession, and called it “perhaps without its peer in the literature of murder.” Abandoned as a child in London and repentant for his crimes in the end, Burgess turned to “the Almighty” for forgiveness. The film is a reminder, according to Justin, that “we all came from somewhere and even the worst of humans was an innocent child at some stage.”

Death Round Every Bend began as a stage play after Justin was unable to get a feature length script up and running. The play started out with two actors in 2016, and, after a positive reception, evolved into a four-man, full length play, Maungatapu, which opened to a sold-out audience at the 2017 Nelson Arts Festival. Despite the success of the stage production, the unproduced movie script continued to call to Justin. Hearing other companies were contemplating a feature length film on the subject, he decided to beat them to it and make a short film. The actors in the play, Nick Kemplen, Cameron West, Daniel Allan and Pete Coates, went on to portray the Burgess gang in the film.

“They might have escaped justice were it not for one of their own”

“The play covers the entire story, whereas the short film just focuses mainly on the events on and around the track on the fateful day and night,” Justin explains. This makes for a gritty, hyper- realistic experience, helped by the fact the whole thing was filmed over one overcast day on the Maungatapu track. Much of the filming took place near the real Murderers’ Rock, though not at the specific spot where the men died. “I’m not sure anyone knows exactly where the murders took place, though we know the general area, a valley or basin near the rock. It was partly practicality, in that it’s hard to get a crew and actors into a remote part of the bush, but also it just really wasn’t necessary, there were other parts of the bush nearby the rock which could double for the murder site.”

Maybe more to the point, Justin says the crew were more than happy to avoid “the bad vibes” of an actual murder scene.

What is real in the film are two of the guns carried by the actors. Producer Geoff Sherlock, who has been interested in the Maungatapu Murders since seeing the above-mentioned plaster heads in the Nelson Provincial Museum as a child, tracked down the firearms through a friend of a friend, who was storing them on behalf of a descendent of a policeman involved in the original arrest. Both guns date to the mid-1800s; one is a single-barrel military style rifle, the other a “blow you in half” police issue double-barrelled shotgun. Geoff calls the chance to use the original firearms in the film a privilege. “I like the beauty in the idea that the guns got to have their time again,” he says. He made another contribution too. Geoff is keen on metal detecting, and all the coins the cinematic gang steal are real, original nineteenth-century cash dug up by him. It makes you think. Maybe one of them was dropped by Richard Burgess himself.

ERIKA GALPIN

FOR THE LAST SEVEN YEARS, ERIKA GALPIN WORKED AS AN ACQUISITIONS EDITOR FOR SEVERAL EBOOK COMPANIES. BEFORE THAT SHE WAS A PROFESSIONALLY PUBLISHED AUTHOR AND EVEN WON AN INTERNATIONAL HAIKU CONTEST. NOW ERIKA IS CONCENTRATING ON HER OWN WRITING.

Death Round Every Bend premiered in September and won eight categories at the Top of the South Film Festival, including Best Picture. Catch it at film festivals around New Zealand in 2020.


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