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The Tortured Production of Tai-Pan

April 18, 2019

I’ve always had a fascination with the concept of a ‘difficult’ production – whether they be unmade films (White Jazz), forgotten or considered-lost productions (Where is Parsifal? and The Devil’s Crown), films that weren’t released until forty years after they were shot (The Other Side of the Wind) or the downright bizarre, how-the-hell-did-that-get-made picture (Bond director Terence Young’s cinematic love letter to Saddam Hussein is a notorious example of this genre).

I recently came across a film that is the equal to all of the above in terms of never-ending difficulty or, as we might say today, ‘development hell’. The making of this film is a tale of titanic ambition, missed opportunities, horrendous luck, botched compromises and warring egos. I am, of course, referring to the big-screen adaptation of James Clavell’s epic bestseller Tai-Pan.

George MacDonald Fraser is best-known as the author of The Flashman Papers, but he also had a prolific career as a screenwriter and his memoir The Light’s on at Signpost covers his time in the movie biz. In the late 1970s, Fraser was contacted by film director Richard Fleischer. Fleischer was set to direct a big-screen adaptation of James Clavell’s Tai-Pan for Swiss producer Georges-Alain Vuille, and he wanted Fraser to write the screenplay. Tai-Pan is set in Hong Kong in the 1840’s, shortly after the First Opium War, when rival British trading companies are vying for market dominance with mainland China. Dirk Struan is the leader or ‘Tai-Pan’ of the Noble House trading company. His arch enemy is Tyler Brock, leader of the Brock & Sons company. Tai-Pan has all the makings of a rattling good yarn as Struan must navigate the politics of empire, ancient Chinese traditions and treacherous fellow traders for the Noble House to ascend to the peak of Victorian mercantile glory. However, when Fraser sat down to read the novel, he found it to be ‘a wonderful atrocity’, ‘turgid and corny’ and ‘supremely dreadful’. I’m in partial agreement with Fraser here, Tai-Pan has great spectacle and story, but too often I felt like Clavell was rushing from one set-piece to another with little regard for coherence or emotional involvement.

Nevertheless, adapting it for the screen would be an exciting writing assignment for Fraser. He flew to Nice where he met Vuille at the Villa Nelleric. He had great affection for the producer who he described as ‘short, stout, excitable and great fun’. He also met Clavell, who struck him as being ‘a very British Australian’. The Australian born Clavell was actually an American citizen by this point, albeit living as a tax exile in Switzerland. Clavell had enjoyed a brief but successful Hollywood career as a film director. His best-known film is the teaching drama To Sir, with Love. Alas, it had all come to a crashing end when his big-budget historical drama The Last Valley flopped. One of the very few films to be set during the Thirty Years War, The Last Valley starred Michael Caine, Omar Sharif and Florinda Bolkan, and despite its financial failure on release, it is now considered something of a lost classic. Brian Trenchard-Smith gives an excellent appraisal of the film on Trailers from Hell, and Fraser himself admired The Last Valley, writing in The Hollywood History of the World that ‘it must be rated a successful picture’ and singling out the staging of Prince Bernhard’s attack on Rheinfelden Bridge as ‘faithfully done’. Despite his criticisms of Clavell’s writing, Fraser truly admired the man and had a lot in common with him. They had both served in the Far East during the war. Fraser documented his experiences fighting the Japanese in Burma in his memoir Quartered Safe Out Here, and Clavell fictionalised his experience as a POW at Changi Prison in Singapore in his novel King Rat. Both men were historical novelists who had lived and fought through the bloodiest period in history, and, for my money, they even looked alike.


George MacDonald Fraser


James Clavell

Clavell told Fraser he had tried and failed to adapt Tai-Pan for the screen himself. This should have set off alarm bells with Fraser. An earlier MGM production, with Patrick McGoohan cast as Struan and Michael Anderson hired to direct, had fallen apart. Would this new version fare any better? Things started well. Fraser wrote a script that both Fleischer and Vuille liked. Vuille admired it so much he immediately commissioned Fraser to write a sequel – Tai-Pan 2. And when Fraser finished that, Vuille wanted a prequel, this to be set during the Battle of Trafalgar when Struan and Brock first develop their mutual loathing while serving in the Royal Navy together. But Fraser turned down the chance to write a third script. He had become exhausted travelling between Cannes, Gstaad and Spain on constant scriptwriting duty at the behest of Vuille and was beginning to have doubts that Tai-Pan would ever get made. He also had to fend off another screenwriter encroaching on his turf. Carl Foreman had worked on the script to the aborted 1968 version of Tai-Pan and was adamant that Fraser should read his version. Fraser refused, surmising that Foreman just wanted a screen credit. When Foreman mailed him his script Fraser sent it back unopened. Fleischer later told him that both he and Foreman had, coincidentally, written an identical closing scene ‘it involves a shot of the Hong Kong beach in 1841, suddenly pulling back in a colossal zoom to show Hong Kong as it is today.’

The question remained as to who would play Dirk Struan. The role required an actor with gravitas and box-office pull. Fleischer and Fraser flew to Los Angeles to meet Steve McQueen at the Beverley Wilshire. At the time McQueen was the biggest movie star in the world and would have been an ideal choice to play Struan. Fraser found the actor to be courteous but rather aloof at first, but he warmed considerably after learning Fraser was Scottish and talked at length about his own Scotch heritage: ‘I blessed the Scottish mafia of Hollywood’ Fraser wrote.

Director, writer and star had two day-long meetings about the project in which McQueen pored over the script line by line, frequently asking questions that impressed Fraser for their insight and intelligence. Finally, McQueen closed the script and proclaimed, ‘I think we’ve got Gone with the Wind here.’

Everyone left the meeting very optimistic, but sadly the project fell apart shortly thereafter. Vuille had already squandered a fortune on scripts for sequels and prequels, and McQueen was offered a record-breaking $10 million to play Struan. Fraser attributes the film’s collapse to McQueen’s ‘astronomical fee’. It’s possible however that McQueen was already too ill for the role, and he used the inflated fee as a convenient way to drop out of it. He would die of cancer a few years later. As for Vuille, who Fraser described as ‘the talk of the film world’ and ‘the boy wonder who was going to be the new DeMille’, he left show-business after being declared bankrupt with only three producing credits to his name. He died after a lung transplant at the age of 51.

The story of the production resumes when Fraser ‘was watching the Parkinson show [on TV], and was astonished to hear Roger Moore say that he was polishing up his Scots accent for Tai-Pan.’ Moore had in fact been working on an adaptation of Tai-Pan for years. The Bond star had a higher opinion of Clavell’s writing than Fraser did, having selected another novel in the Asian Saga, Noble House, as his choice of book on Desert Island Discs. Moore said of Tai-Pan, ‘all Clavell’s books are brilliant but I have particular affection for this one’, adding that he and Bond producer Cubby Broccoli used to enjoy greeting each other with an insult from the novel: ‘Ye be a bag full of farts’ (it’s worth noting that it is one of the many lines of dialogue that irked Fraser who described it as ‘a bizarre kind of English’). Fraser and Moore had known each other since the Flashman author had worked on the script of Octopussy. Fraser admired Moore for his ready wit, noting that at least one of his bon mots ‘passed into my family’s language’. He also said cryptically ‘Moore and I discussed Georges Alain (Vuille)’. The idea of a James Bond actor as Dirk Struan was not new. Clavell had said to Fraser, ‘It’s got to be Sean, hasn’t it?’ Fraser agreed with Clavell that Connery was perfect for the role, ‘He’s made for it.’

It’s probably no coincidence, given Fraser and Moore’s mutual obsession with Tai-Pan, that James Clavell’s daughter Michaela has a role in Octopussy as Penelope Smallbone, Miss Moneypenny’s assistant. Her character is limited to one scene, but she manages to inject some much needed sex appeal into the offices of Universal Exports at a time when both Moore and Lois Maxwell were getting a bit long in the tooth. In his memoir My Word is My Bond, Moore describes wanting to rethink his acting career after Octopussy. To his surprise he was asked to play Bond once more, finally hanging up his Walther PPK after A View to a Kill and dedicating all of his energies to producing and starring in Tai-Pan. Moore had experience as a producer, after The Persuaders! had finished its run he worked for Brut Films. He was an executive producer on a handful of films in the early 1970s, the best of which was probably A Touch of Class. Moore was proud of the picture: ‘The film went on to win great reviews, and was very successful, with Glenda Jackson ultimately winning the Best Actress Oscar […] What an auspicious beginning.’ Alas, his beginner’s luck as a producer wouldn’t last. He optioned the rights to Tai-Pan and hired John Guillerman to direct, and they began developing the script together and raising the finances. The project seemed to be coming together, with the sets being constructed in Croatia, when suddenly the financing fell through and the whole project collapsed. Why did the money disappear? Moore provides no answer in his memoir, but it’s a common problem in movie-making and the curse of Tai-Pan had struck again. ‘Months if not years of my life had been wasted’, Moore complained bitterly. In 1989, Moore accepted his first acting role in five years, and the press reported that he had come out of retirement: ‘I had, of course, been busy with Tai-Pan but nobody realised that.’

By the time the press were reporting on Moore’s acting comeback, the film of Tai-Pan had finally been made and swiftly forgotten. Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights to the novel after Moore’s production fell through. Bryan Brown played Dirk Struan and Daryl Duke was behind the camera. It’s not a bad film, but it suffers from two major problems. Firstly, condensing a 700 page narrative into a two hour film, and secondly, it features a series of spectacular set-pieces which feel unengaging. It does have one major draw. Joan Chen is superb as Struan’s Chinese mistress May-May. I wonder if it was her performance here that secured Chen her high-profile roles in The Last Emperor and Twin Peaks. She does her best with some dreadful dialogue, and walks away with her dignity intact.


Bryan Brown as Dirk Struan and Joan Chen as May-May

Postscript: The eventual film adaptation of Tai-Pan met with poor reviews and disappointing box-office returns. Was it worth the work and obsession that so many people had put into it over two decades? Well, neither Fraser nor Carl Foreman received a writing credit in the finished film, but the closing shot they had both independently concocted did make it in. The film ends with the camera panning away from the desolate nineteenth-century Hong Kong coast and dissolves into an image of the skyscrapers that make up that Asian metropolis today.

It’s a fitting tribute to Clavell’s tale of the buccaneering Dirk Struan and the epic struggle to get it up on the big screen. And if you can’t take a crumb of comfort from that then ‘Ye be a bag full of farts’.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2019 9:28 pm

    Thank you Mr. Powell. Enjoyed the info in this article.

    The movie was terrible—sadly—but like Moore, I did love that book (and the movie poster).

    I ended up moving to Hong Kong in fact, and I will say, what I learned from Tai Pan and Noble House came in quite handy.

    Sad that Clavell died without finishing the Asian Saga. I read Whirlwind hoping to gleam some information about how it all tied together. That was not a fun experience and a letdown at the end.

    • August 2, 2019 3:16 pm

      Hi Sean, thanks. Yes, one of those unusual cases when the making of the film is more interesting than the film itself. Hong Kong’s politics currently seem as turbulent and fascinating as ever. Clavell would approve.

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