This film produced many ‘firsts’. Made in 1977, it was New Zealand’s first ever 35MM colour feature film and can be credited with not only kick starting feature film making in the country, but showing the New Zealand government the need for them to fund feature films.
This they started doing after setting up the New Zealand Film Commission in 1978. It was Roger Donaldson’s first time directing a feature film and it was Sam Neill’s first acting role in a feature film.
Donaldson went on to a successful Hollywood directing career making such films as Cocktail, Species, The Bank Job, and the more familiar recent New Zealand film The World’s Fastest Indian. Sam Neill’s career speaks for itself, but just in case you don’t know him, he’s been in such films as Hunt for the Red October, The Piano and Jurassic Park 1 and 3.
On a side note, back in 2005 I got to attend the after party for the world premiere of The World’s Fastest Indian in Toronto, Canada. I was in Toronto promoting our feature film Hidden which was also having its world premiere at a festival in the same city.
Sleeping Dogs is based on the book, Smith’s Dream, by the acclaimed New Zealand author C.K. Stead. It was adapted for the screen by Ian Mune, who also acted in the film and went on to a top acting career in New Zealand. The story follows Sam Neill’s character, Smith, whose marriage has just finished as his wife has found new love with Ian Mune’s character.
Smith is forced to leave his kids and old life behind as he sets off in search of a new life and, inadvertently and reluctantly, gets caught up inside the dangerous world of revolutionary fighters who are up in arms at the New Zealand government because of industrial disputes.
As the country becomes more and more a police state and the ideals of the government become more fascist, not only does his ex wife and her new partner come back into his life as guerrilla fighters, but he finds himself fighting alongside them! This of course is a completely fictional story and in 1977, when the film was first released, viewers were left thinking how lucky they were that things like this could never happen in New Zealand.
Ironically, however, only 4 years later, the 1981 Springbok tour ended in riots with the New Zealand police unleashing a special force called the Red and Blue Squads to deal with the problem. Prior to the Springbok tour this type of police squad had never before been seen in New Zealand but what they wore and how they acted almost mirrored the fascist police who appeared 4 years earlier in Sleeping Dogs. Life imitating art maybe?
Sleeping Dogs really is a lesson in filmmaking as almost everyone involved had never worked on a feature film before so it’s a little rough around the edges; but then whose first film isn’t? I have a few issues with the pacing and the script but, all in all, this is a classic New Zealand film and rightly sits as one of the most influential New Zealand films ever made.
They say you learn something new every day. Well, in researching this film I discovered that Donaldson isn’t a Kiwi but is in fact an Aussie! He moved here in his early 20’s to dodge the draft for the Vietnam War. I think, however, we can safely say he’s a Kiwi at heart!
8 out of 10 form me!!!