Sleeping Dogs

Roger Donaldson | New Zealand | 1977


Sleeping Dogs heralded the new wave of New Zealand feature films in the late 1970s, and was a key factor in the establishment of the New Zealand Film Commission. It was also the first New Zealand film released in the United States (a feat rarely repeated), and it launched the international careers of director Roger Donaldson and lead actor Sam Neill. Neill was 30 at the time, and in his first major screen role his charisma is palpable; Donaldson’s assured direction, particularly of the action pieces, would set him on his way to a long career helming studio films in Hollywood. Donaldson made this film (based on CK Stead’s novel Smith’s Dream) at a time when New Zealanders, beginning to shrug off the cultural cringe, were hungry to see images of themselves on the big screen. It was released widely and was well attended (in contrast to the few films that had previously been made here, which struggled to find audiences). Politically, the 1970s were a time of fear and uncertainty; there was an oil crisis and inflation was rampant. The story, with its ‘man alone’ anti-authority themes, presented a distinctly local take on the zeitgeist.
– Richard King, NZ On Screen.

There is an attitude that Ian Cross once called ‘the Kiwi cringe’: the ingrained and inherent belief that anything imported is better, and that the overseas expert must always be given greater heed than the local equivalent. As far as the arts are concerned (and here I’m talking particularly about the performing arts – drama, opera, ballet, cinema) we lived for years – far too many years – in a situation where the foreign product was regarded as the ideal, the native work was treated as little more than a joke. Even with all the advances that have been made in the last 12 or 15 years, obviously the New Zealand inferiority complex is still there: what have we ever made or produced that’s up to world standards? That takes for granted, of course, that the world standard is (in most cases) British or American. And since we have been brought up for two generations on an almost unlimited diet of British and American films, anything filmed here has to undergo a double ordeal by fire: it has to endure that utterly destructive ‘kiwi cringe’ type of criticism, with the added refinement that we are conditioned to believing that anything made anywhere else in the world can only be imitation Hollywood or Pinewood. New Zealanders have not given notable support to films made in New Zealand over the past 5O-odd years. Their indifference has made the going hard for the pioneers, and this year – when an unprecedented five major New Zealand productions (I’m including Michael Firth’s documentary Off The Edge) are being released – may be literally the point of breakthrough or bust.

This was the main thrust of the traditional ‘few words’ Ian Mune was invited to say before a preview screening of Aardvark Films production Sleeping Dogs. Forcefully and with the passion of a man who knows he may be arguing for one last chance, he asked us to view the film and then, whether we loved it or hated it, to go out and talk about it – tell people about it – suggest that they go and see it for themselves, to form their own opinion.

In my opinion, Sleeping Dogs is an extremely accurate, honest, funny, sensitive and unretouched picture of how many people in this country do talk and behave. The fact that their life-style may not be altogether desirable by normal standards (and after all, what is normal?) has nothing to do with it. When two Kiwi males fight and argue over a woman, they’re not likely to challenge each other to a duel or say ‘You’re a cad, and in future I shall cut you dead in the club!’ They have a real old barney, as they do in Sleeping Dogs, and slug it out.

So what’s Sleeping Dogs about? Well, first of all, it’s almost frighteningly topical. It starts with a political confrontation in New Zealand – a strong Prime Minister arriving back from an overseas trip to face a militant union on strike and threatening the rule of law and order. Events move fast, the strike escalates into a national emergency and some ugly incidents precipitate a military takeover. Involved in this situation are the three main characters – Smith, his wife Gloria and her lover Bullen. Smith takes off for a remote island in the Coromandel, so far away that he knows little or nothing of the country’s turmoil – and cares less. But in spite of himself he’s drawn into the thick of it, forced to become a freedom fighter in a group led by Bullen. You can see that the story, taken from Karl Stead’s novel Smith’s Dream is pretty explosive stuff – and the screenplay by Ian Mune and Arthur Baysting, makes the very most of its chances. In this the writers have been more than well-served by their director, Roger Donaldson, and their cameraman, Michael Seresin – who deserves particular praise for some remarkably fine work, whether in the harshly realistic street-fighting scenes near the beginning, the almost romantically evocative country sequences in the Coromandel, or (and here I can’t praise too much) the climactic sequences in the bush as Smith and Bullen try to escape to safety with menacing helicopters at treetop level and enemy soldiers chasing after them.

We’re accustomed to seeing this sort of ‘it could happen here’ theme set in a variety of places, and by bringing it so close to home Sleeping Dogs runs the very real risk of demanding from its local audience a degree of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that is almost too much. But to suggest that is to deny the strength of conviction in the treatment and in the acting. The people in this story do not seem like manipulated puppets or characters speaking lines from a script. They have a stamp of authenticity. When Smith leaves his house and family, his wife sits huddled in a chair, his children stand at the door waving goodbye, uncomprehending. When he fights Bullen, you’re convinced by their hostile antagonism. When he asks the Maori owners of the island he intends to live on for their permission, their attitude is so delightfully humorous and true you can’t help but believe in them. When Bullen and Gloria are caught by a police baton charge and are beaten up, there’s no sense of pretence or play-acting. When Smith escapes and seeks shelter with his in-laws their behaviour is entirely human and natural. When he arrives in Rotorua, a fugitive and a danger to anyone giving him shelter, his meeting with an old lady who’s a resistance fighter is tense but not without human touches.

But it’s when Smith and Bullen are forced to share the experience of being hunted down that their relationship, till then one of mutual dislike, becomes one of mutual respect and dependence. It’s even possible for the script to allow Smith a campfire speech explaining an early part of the plot – and, miraculously, to get away with it. Of course, there are one or two moments of awkwardness: notably a key sequence when Smith is questioned in prison by Jesperson, the Prime Minister’s chief bully-boy: But mercifully, they’re few and brief. The total effect is one of pace, reality and believability. The colour is notably good, the editing almost precision-like in its judgement. If there is a sequence involving Smith with a woman, it is completely in context and not by any means overdone.

My own feeling about Sleeping Dogs is one of pride. I don’t mean just pride because it’s a New Zealand film, or even pride because it’s an outstandingly good New Zealand film. The pride I feel is that it need not invite anyone in its audience to adopt the ‘Kiwi cringe’ and crawl out questioning whether it couldn’t have been done better almost anywhere else. It couldn’t, and if we can continue to make others like it we will soon have a flourishing film industry here.
Peter Harcourt, Viewpoint, Radio New Zealand, reprinted with permission in Sequence, November 1977.


Back to Screening information