by Stephen Vagg

I’m not sure where James Clavell sits now in the land of literary-dom, but for a few decades, it was a rare bookshelf (in the English-speaking world at least) that didn’t have at least one of his door-stopping tomes propped up against a wall.

For those unaware, Clavell was an Australian-born British writer, the son of an RAN officer, who specialised in epic historical tales of Western interaction with Asia, particularly Hong Kong (Tai-Pan, Noble House) and Japan (Shogun, Gaijin) but also Iran (Whirlwind). There was plenty of sex, intrigue, and a love of free trade – Clavell’s heroes were often businessmen dedicated to “opening up” Asian markets; he was particularly famed for his ‘Asian saga’ which revolved around the activities of Noble House, a trading company loosely based on Jardine Matheson.

Clavell [below] had a long history with the movies. Prior to becoming a novelist, he worked as a screenwriter and director of some renown, his best-known credits including The Fly (1958), Five Gates to Hell (1959) and The Great Escape (1963). Even after the best-selling success of Clavell’s debut novel, King Rat, an autobiographical tale about Changi Prison during World War Two, he continued to write and direct movies on the side.

Clavell had a spectacular success with To Sir with Love (1967) before coming a cropper with Where’s Jack (1969) and The Last Valley (1971), then hanging up his (metaphorical) baseball cap and viewfinder to focus solely on writing.

The subject of today’s article is a proposed film version of Tai-Pan, Clavell’s second novel, first published in 1966.

Set against the establishment of the Hong Kong colony in 1842, it focuses on Dirk Struan, the first tai-pan, or leader, of the trading company Noble House. Over the course of 727 pages, Struan gets in various adventures, feuding with his hated nemesis (and fellow trader) Brock, clashing with his son Callum, romancing his Chinese mistress May May, and basically having the biggest dick energy in the South China Sea.

The book was an immediate bestseller, in part due to its action-packed story and historical details, but also, one feels, the Hong Kong angle, that city having revived in geo-political importance since the Cold War (and being a rare success story for the British Empire during a time when that institution was in decline).

The 1960s was the decade of the “roadshow epic”, and film rights were bought (for a reported $500,000) by the production company Filmways, who set up the project at MGM. An impressive team gathered: Martin Ransohoff and Carlo Ponti would produce and Michael Anderson (Von Ryan’s Express) would direct from a script by Clavell, with the role of Struan to be played by Patrick McGoohan, coming off his TV series The Prisoner and seemingly set to become a big movie star – and you know, he would’ve been perfect.

However, the film kept being delayed – it would’ve cost a tonne ($14 million, down from an original estimate of $26 million) and MGM was haemorrhaging money in those days; the studio was taken over in 1969 by Kirk Kerkorian, whose newly-appointed president James T. Aubrey axed a series of MGM epics about to start filming, including a Blake Edwards/Julie Andrews musical, Say It With Music, a Fred Zinnemann version of André Malraux’s Man’s Fate, and Tai-Pan. I would’ve loved to have seen all three films, incidentally, but am sympathetic to MGM, who had crashed on some major box office rocks with efforts like The Shoes of the Fisherman, Mayerling, The Appointment, and The Extraordinary Seaman (it would never really recover – and McGoohan never became a film star, though MGM tried in Ice Station Zebra and The Moonshine War).

So Tai-Pan went away – only also it didn’t, because the book kept selling, and interest in a film was revived following the publication of Clavell’s novel Shogun in 1975.

Hong Kong producer Run Run Shaw announced he would make a movie from a script by Carl Foreman (Guns of Navarone), but it didn’t happen. In 1978, film rights passed to Swiss theatre magnate Georges-Alain Vuille, who commissioned a screenplay from George MacDonald Fraser, which I’m discussing today (it took me a while to get here, I appreciate that).

Fraser was a Scottish journalist and novelist, who turned to screenwriting when offered the job of adapting Dumas’ The Three Musketeers by Richard Lester (who had wanted to film Fraser’s novel Flashman). The Musketeers film – or films, rather, it was split into two movies, released in 1973 and 1974 – was a big success and Fraser launched on a successful parallel career as a screenwriter, his later credits including Royal Flash (1975), The Prince and the Pauper (1977), Octopussy (1983), Red Sonja (1985) and The Return of the Musketeers (1989).

Fraser’s great skill as a novelist was deploying his vivid, readable prose in excellently researched historical adventures full of action, sex and plot twists – just like James Clavell, although for my money, Fraser was the better actual writer. The Scot was heavily influenced by novelists he’d read as a boy such as Rafael Sabatini and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as Hollywood movies, which he greatly admired (NB. Fraser’s non-fiction overview of historical pictures, A Hollywood History of the World, is a lot of fun). His “ace in the hole”, at least until he started taking himself far too seriously in the last decade of his life, was a slightly tongue-in-cheek, irreverent look at the past, mocking old attitudes and institutes while at the same time celebrating them (which made Fraser such an ideal collaborator for Lester and also gave his historical work such a contemporary feel).

The Three Musketeers had been produced by the Salkinds, who then financed another all-star historical film that Fraser (co) wrote, The Prince and the Pauper. The director of that was Richard Fleischer, who got along so well with the writer that when the director signed to make Ashanti (1979) and Tai-Pan for Vuille, he recommended Fraser be hired to do the screenplay for the latter.

In his memoirs, Light’s On at Signpost, Fraser said this “Was kind and flattering, but I would have jumped at the project anyway. I knew Tai-Pan was a massive best-selling historical novel, I’d have worked with Fleischer on anything, and from the sound of it, Vuille had the drive and the bankroll to make the film a blockbuster.”

When Fraser actually read Clavell’s book he found it “a wonderful atrocity… supremely dreadful… turgid and corny and it bore some of the worst marks of the American historical fiction writer… adrift in a non-American subject. There were enough trivial inaccuracies to worry me and a romantic misconception of how early Victorians spoke, thought and behaved” and “I began to wonder how fat the Chinese background, of which I knew little, was to be trusted.” This was a little mean, IMHO.

Fraser did allow that although the novel “was a great hodge podge and certainly not literary… it contained what used to be called a rattling good yard, with highlights which would translate spectacularly to the screen… from a scriptwriter’s viewpoint if was a bloody gold mine. Clavell might not be able to ‘write’ a story, but by gym he could ‘see’ it.”

Fraser wrote a script, refusing to look at any of the earlier drafts that had been done – according to the LA Times in May 1978 there had been eight to date (not uncommon for projects based on best-sellers stuck in development hell). The writer said his dream casting was Sean Connery as the Scottish Struan and Robert Shaw (who had recently died) as Brock. Fraser handed in his first draft “and got the best reaction to a script I’ve ever had in my life.”

Another draft was done, and the script sent out to stars; Fraser and Fleischer pressed for Connery but Vuille refused, eventually signing Steve McQueen (who, at the time, ranked with Robert Redford as the biggest star in the world) for a then-record fee of $10 million.

Fraser says that in the meantime, Vuille arranged for him to do some uncredited script work on Ashanti and write a sequel to Tai-Pain; the producer also wanted Fraser to pen a prequel about Struan and Brock at the Battle of Trafalgar but the writer refused. Fraser’s commitments to Tai-Pan had meant he missed the opportunity to work on a script of the Mutiny on the Bounty with David Lean (allowing “the script was finally done by Robert Bolt and I know when I’m outclassed.”).

Fraser, Vuille and Fleischer met up with McQueen in Los Angeles, going over the script for two days. It went well (although the star vetoed the writer’s casting suggestion for Brock, Oliver Reed) and Fraser says at the end of their session, McQueen “paid me the biggest compliment I’ve ever had as a screenwriter” by tapping the screenplay and stating, ‘I think we’ve got Gone With the Wind here’.

I’ve read a fifth draft of Fraser’s script, dated February 1980. It is an absolutely first-rate piece of work, which succeeds in admirably condensing the book and focuses on the key relationships in Struan’s life: Brock, Cullum, May May and the colony of Hong Kong. He also, cleverly I feel, gives prominence to the subplot about Mary, a pastor’s sister with an exotic love life and old debt to Struan, ensuring greater female interest. The script clocks in at 194 pages and fairly zips by. It would have been expensive to produce – there’s a full-on battle at the end where you can see Fraser letting his enthusiasm for old Hollywood pirate movies let fly – but you could also see where economies could have been made. There are superbly tense sequences, such as Cantonese bannermen looking for Struan, and the ending, with (SPOILERS) Struan and May May dying in a typhoon and Cullum having to learn to stand on his own feet, is unexpectedly moving and rousing, as it was in the novel.

Fraser says McQueen eventually quit the project after a dispute over money (possibly complicated by his health – the movie star would die in November 1980) after which Roger Moore was to play Struan; Fleischer dropped out and then Fraser.

According to press reports, however (which may not be accurate), Connery attached to the project after McQueen and before Moore – in May 1980 it was stated Connery would star, with John Guillermin to direct.

Then in April 1981, Roger Moore was attached to Tai-Pan, reconfigured as a mini-series (a television version of Shogun had been a huge success). However, Vuille was unable to raise the necessary finance (in the long run he never had much luck in film production), and in 1983, film rights to the novel transferred to producer Dino De Laurentiis who did succeed in bringing Tai-Pan to the screen.

Although Richard Fleischer, John Guillermin and George MacDonald Fraser all made pictures for Dino around this time, his version of Tai-Pan was directed by Daryl Duke, from a script credited to John Briley and Stanley Mann (both experienced screenwriters).

Duke was then riding high on the ratings success of his mini-series The Thorn Birds, co-starring Bryan Brown… who was then cast as Dirk Struan. Costing $25 million, Tai-Pan was the first American movie shot in China – it was a difficult shoot and the movie a huge flop, contributing to the bankruptcy of De Laurentiis’ company in 1988 (which, in an odd Australian connection, led to the producer having to sell his new movie studios on the Gold Coast to Village Roadshow).

I remember when Tai-Pan came out and to my young ears the story sounded terribly old-fashioned, so I avoided it at the cinema and only saw it years later on television.

There is much to admire in the 1986 Tai-Pan – the costumes and photography are stunning, as are the locations and Maurice Jarre’s score. The adaptation is however very… lumpy, feeling paced and structured like a mini-series although it is more adult (there’s some topless nudity and they include the scene where Brock’s son castrates a sailor who has tried to seduce Brock’s daughter). It’s fun for Australians seeing Bryan Brown and John Stanton as Struan and Brock, and both certainly look their parts but neither feel right, to put it mildly – Bryan Brown is never comfortable with a Scottish accent and Stanton struggles to give much dimension to Brock. The older supporting actors underwhelm but the casting people really had their eye in when it came to the ladies: Joan Chen is (atrociously dubbed as) May May, Kyra Sedgwick is Brock’s daughter and Janice Dickson is a flirty American. I liked Russell Wong as Gordon Chen and Tim Guinee as Cullum.

The 1986 Tai-Pan film is definitely not as good as Fraser’s 1980 script. It takes too long to get going – Brock doesn’t threaten Struan until 38 minutes in – and the characters’ motivations and their relationships are less clear. Epics might be famed for their long running times, foreign locations and lush production values but the successful ones are always – always – built around a strong story and key emotional relationships. Yes, yes, everyone knows Ben Hur (1959) for its chariot race and sea battles but what made that piece resonate with a broad audience were Ben Hur’s personal relationships – with his nemesis Messala (Stephen Boyd), his mentor Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), his love interest Esther (Haya Harareet) and spiritual self (Christianity). Fraser’s script does this, focusing on Struan and his love (May May), nemesis (Brock), protege (Cullum), ally (Mary) and spiritual quest (Hong Kong). The 1986 version doesn’t do it so well, allowing itself to get drawn into detours like the sadism of Brock’s son Gort. It’s not helped by the fact that none of the cast seem to have any chemistry with each other – seriously, no one genuinely feels like family, friends, lovers and/or enemies.

The characterisations in Fraser’s script are better too. Brock is more imposing and complex, as are Mary and Callum. And while I’m not going to pretend May May is anything other than a (certain sort of) straight man’s fantasy figure (sexy, adoring, childish, happy to be a slave), Fraser gives her far more dimension and status than the 1986 script: she slips in Scottish slang, organises funds for Struan, takes part in thrilling action sequences and gets to be brave and smart. Fraser makes clever use of the broken coin device, a big novelty in the novel, barely mentioned in the 1986 film. Most of all, he captures the essential point of Tai-Pan: Struan’s dream of the colony of Hong Kong being a gateway to modernising Asia, the difficulties of those first few months, and his final vindication when the harbour protects the ships in a typhoon even though the storm also kills him and May May. Mind you, in fairness to the 1986 writers, maybe that was there in their original scripts but undone via uncredited rewrites.

The flop of Tai-Pan didn’t do Bryan Brown’s career that much harm, as around this time he also appeared in FX and Cocktail, which were hits. It did hurt Daryl Duke, who went back to television (and Duke could make effective features – check out his superb Canadian thriller The Silent Partner if you haven’t). De Laurentiis bounced back (eventually) with Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon (2002). Clavell cranked out some more best-sellers (Whirlwind, Gai Jin), supervised a mini-series of Noble House (one based on Gaijin started filming but was abandoned), before dying in 1994.

Fraser later called his script of Tai-Pan “the really big one that got away” in his career, adding “but that’s show business.” He was well paid for his time, got to do research on the Far East that he later repurposed in his novel Flashman and the Dragon, and always felt the quality of his work led to him being offered to write Octopussy. He died in 2008, productive up until the very end, most notably composing the superb wartime memoir Quartered Safe Out Here; he also did an unfilmed movie script about the Lone Ranger for director John Landis which sounds like a fun read.

[Side bar: in 2013 I met Landis while he was in Melbourne as a guest of the Melbourne Festival and we briefly chatted about the Lone Ranger. Landis said Fraser’s script was one of the best he’d ever read, but didn’t get made because of a long, complicated issue partly involving the rights. Despite being politically opposite to Fraser, who had turned very right-wing by then, Landis really liked the writer, and they collaborated well.]

Would the Fraser-Fleischer-McQueen Tai-Pan have been a hit in the early 1980s? Interesting question. The movie would have been an outlier in that time of the “broad youth market movie”, although adult historical adventure tales could still break through – Excalibur, Reds, Out of Africa, The Last Emperor, etc. Fraser’s script was terrific to read, gave me a fresh appreciation of a writer whose prose I’d always admired, And I wish de Laurentiis had filmed it in 1986 instead of the version he did use.

Main Image: Len Thurston’s Gouache painting for the original book cover illustration for the novel Tai-Pan, published by Century