Sleeping Dogs (film)

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Sleeping Dogs
Sleeping Dogs (1977 film poster).jpg
Directed by Roger Donaldson
Produced by Roger Donaldson
Larry Parr
Written by Ian Mune
Arthur Baysting
Release date
Running time
107 minutes
Language English

Sleeping Dogs is a 1977 Action, Drama, Thriller film based on the book Smith's Dream by C. K. Stead, and is the first feature film by director Roger Donaldson. Featuring Sam Neill, Clyde Scott and Warren Oates it is notable for being the first feature-length 35 mm film produced entirely in New Zealand.[citation needed]

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.


Following the break-up of his marriage caused by his wife's affair with another man named Bullen (Mune), "Smith" (Neill) 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 enjoys his peaceful island life and has little interaction with the rest of society and his dog which was given to him by a friend.

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. He recognises one policeman as a former schoolmate, Jesperson (Clyde Scott) 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 camping ground and love with a local girl. Happy to be outside the civil war again he blends in again until a US army unit arrives and takes over the camping ground. Smith clashes with the commander of the US forces Willoughby (Oates) and is suspected 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.


  • New Zealand Film 1912-1996 by Helen Martin & Sam Edwards p64 (1997, Oxford University Press, Auckland) ISBN 019 558336 1

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