Sleeping Dogs (film)

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Sleeping Dogs
Sleeping Dogs (1977 film poster).jpg
Directed byRoger Donaldson
Produced byRoger Donaldson
Larry Parr
Written byIan Mune
Arthur Baysting
StarringSam Neill
Nevan Rowe
Ian Mune
Ian Watkin
Warren Oates
Music byMathew Brown
David Calder
Murray Grindlay
CinematographyMichael Seresin
Release date
  • July 13, 1977 (1977-07-13) (Australia)
Running time
107 minutes
CountryNew Zealand

Sleeping Dogs is a 1977 New Zealand dramatic action-thriller film, based on the book Smith's Dream by C. K. Stead, directed by Roger Donaldson, and produced by Donaldson and Larry Parr.[1] Featuring Sam Neill, Clyde Scott and Warren Oates it is notable for being the first feature-length 35mm film produced entirely in New Zealand.[citation needed] The film was a major success critically and commercially and launched the career of Sam Neill, who later went on to do international works such as Jurassic Park, The Piano, Hunt for The Wilderpeople, and Peaky Blinders.

A political thriller with action film elements, it follows the lead character "Smith" (Neill) as New Zealand plunges into a police state as a fascist government institutes martial law after industrial disputes flare into violence. Smith gets caught between the special police and a growing resistance movement and reluctantly becomes involved. Often named one of the best New Zealand films of all time, it is considered a classic and a landmark in the new wave of cinema in the country, helping to change New Zealand cinema from small, melodramatic, derivative films to the modern reels that make the country known in the industry today.[2][1]


Following the break-up of his marriage caused by his wife's affair with another man named Bullen, Smith arranges to live on the Coromandel Peninsula on an island owned by a Maori tribe. Meanwhile, political tension escalates as an oil embargo leaves the country in an energy crisis. Tension boils over into a civil war and guerrilla activity. However, Smith and his dog enjoy a peaceful island life, having little interaction with the rest of society.

Smith's idyllic life is shattered when a bomb is exploded in a nearby town, and police arrive on his island to arrest him and search for illegal weapons. After they find a cache of explosives that Smith had been unaware of, he is taken to a police station where he is imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. The dog is last seen swimming after the boat that Smith is being taken away in. Smith recognizes one policeman as a former schoolmate, Jesperson, who then takes over the interrogation. Jesperson reveals that the Government regard Smith as a key leader of the guerillas and offers expulsion from New Zealand in return for a confession, or alternatively trial by a military tribunal with a likely death sentence.

During a prison transfer, Smith deliberately forces himself to vomit to confuse his captors and escapes. He then flees the city, finding work at a small camp ground and love with a local girl. Happy to be outside the civil war again, Smith blends in until a US Army unit arrives and takes over the camp ground. Smith clashes with Willoughby, the commander of the US forces, who suspects Smith of being a rebel sympathiser. The arrival of Bullen, who is now a senior leader of the underground guerrilla movement, complicates matters further. As the US forces capture and kill more rebels, Smith is unwillingly drawn into participating in an attack on the military unit by Bullen.

Fleeing the scene of the successful attack, Smith and Bullen are pursued by Government forces and cornered in a nearby forest. After Government forces surround the guerrillas and bomb their encampment, Smith and Bullen escape, only to be cornered by Jesperson and his elite squad. After Bullen is fatally wounded, Smith – wishing an end to what is happening – deliberately provokes Jesperson into shooting him.



The scene in which Sam Neill ("Smith") escapes the police van and runs off into the crowded street was filmed without formal permission from the police. When Neill's stunt double ran from the van, an off-duty police officer tackled him, mistaking the stuntman for a real criminal attempting to escape custody. The stuntman had to point out the camera crew to get the officer to release him.

In the scene where Warren Oates steps out of his jeep and meets "Smith", he is actually holding a page of the script, fearing that he'd forget the lines. Oates acted as if the paper was a list of directions to the motel.

The riot scenes in which police with batons and shields beat back protestors closely mirrored actions of police and protestors four years later during the 1981 South African National Rugby team – the Springboks' – tour in New Zealand, which sparked anti-apartheid protests.

RNZAF A-4 Skyhawks also featured in the film.


  1. ^ a b "Sleeping Dogs". NZ On Screen. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  2. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Sleeping Dogs Movie Review & Film Summary (1977) | Roger Ebert". Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  • New Zealand Film 1912–1996 by Helen Martin & Sam Edwards p64 (1997, Oxford University Press, Auckland) ISBN 019 558336 1

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