A close up of Smith played by Sam Neill while he is hiding from pursuers. He is partially obscured by tree branches, but there is bight light behind him

Sleeping Dogs

Roger Donaldson, New Zealand 1977, 107 minutes

Rating: PG Violence

Director: Roger Donaldson
Producer: Roger Donaldson
Screenplay: Ian Mune, Arthur Baysting,
  from the novel Smith’s Dream
  by Karl Stead
Cinematography: Michael Seresin
Editor: Ian John
Music: David Calder, Matthew Brown,
  Murray Grindlay
Sam Neill (Smith)
Ian Mune (Bullen)
Nevan Rowe (Gloria)
Warren Oates (Col. Willoughby)
Bernard Kearns (Prime Minister)
Davina Whitehouse (Elsie)
Antony Groser (Gloria’s father)
Dorothy McKegg (Gloria’s mother)
Don Selwyn (Taupiri)

Based on CK Stead’s first novel, Smith’s Dream, Roger Donaldson’s feature debut ushered in a new wave of Aotearoa feature films in the late 1970’s.

Read Lindsay Shelton’s article on the background to the film’s place in film history, as the first New Zealand feature ever released in the United States, where it opened in February 1982

Reclusive Smith is drawn into a revolutionary struggle, entangled between two powers – a repressive government and a violent resistance movement. The tension is kept at a high pitch through the drip feeding of information. We don’t discover Smith’s situation all at once, but as it becomes clear, his motivations for doing what he does also come into focus. We are kept almost exclusively in Smith’s point-of-view, showing a man unwittingly being used by both sides of the conflict as the government becomes a dictatorship and the police force an army. A very young Sam Neill shows the mixture of vulnerability and steely determination that has characterised many of the roles he’s gone on to play in the years since this startling debut.

What happens when sleeping dogs are woken up?

Released amidst the Muldoon government period and a post-Vietnam War lens, Roger Donaldson’s feature was the first local feature to gain international recognition and distribution in the USA. Following other man-alone centred thrillers directed in Aotearoa like John O’Shea’s Runaway (1964), this military fantasy has even more resonance today than it did on its release.

What happens when you’re hunted… And there’s no place to run!

“Sleeping Dogs was the film that put both Sam Neill and New Zealand cinema on the world stage, and it’s not difficult to see why. This is a tightly paced, tautly structured thriller packed with wonderful performances and explosive action sequences that belies its low budget roots. But it’s also much more than that because if there’s one thing we can be assured of when we watch most New Zealand cinema it’s the inclusion of emotional complexity and genuine filmmaking passion. There’s a powerful beating heart to Sleeping Dogs which makes it superior to most other ‘wronged man against the world’ suspensers…” – Ian White, Starburst Magazine.

Film courtesy of Te Tumu Whakaata Taonga New Zealand Film Commission


Mar 13 2023


6:15 pm - 8:05 pm