Tai-Pan (film)

Tai-Pan is a 1986 adventure drama film directed by Daryl Duke, loosely based on James Clavell's 1966 eponymous novel. While many of the same characters and plot twists are maintained, a few smaller occurrences are left out. Filmed under communist Chinese censorship, some portions of Clavell's story were considered too offensive to be filmed as written and considerable changes were made.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byDaryl Duke
Produced byRaffaella De Laurentiis
Written byJohn Briley
James Clavell
Stanley Mann
Music byMaurice Jarre
CinematographyJack Cardiff
Edited byAntony Gibbs
Distributed byDe Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG)
Release date
  • November 7, 1986 (1986-11-07)
Running time
127 minutes
CountryUnited States
BudgetUS$25 million[1][2][3]
Box office$2 million[4][3]

The De Laurentiis Entertainment Group handled the production and were actively seen battling the Chinese Government and Labor boards over the film during shooting. The results fared poorly at the box office and in critical reviews. Duke believed that a mini-series à la Shōgun or Noble House would have been a far superior means of covering the complexity of Clavell's novel.


The film begins in 1842, following the British victory of the First Opium War and the seizure of Hong Kong. Although the island is largely uninhabited and the terrain unfriendly, it has a large port that both the British government and various trading companies believe will be useful for the import of merchandise to be traded on mainland China, a highly lucrative market.

Although the film features many characters, it is arguably Dirk Struan and Tyler Brock, former shipmates and the owners of two massive (fictional) trading companies who are the main focal points of the story. Their rocky and often abusive relationship as seamen initiated an intense amount of competitive tension.

Throughout, both men seek to destroy each other in matters of business and personal affairs. Struan is referred to as Tai-Pan (which author Clavell translates as "Supreme Leader," although this is not the accepted translation of the term) indicating his position as head of the largest and most profitable of all the trading companies operating in Asia. Brock, owner of the second largest of the trading companies, constantly vies to destroy Struan's company and reputation in an attempt to both exact revenge on Struan and become the new "Tai-Pan" of Chinese trade.

While the film follows a similar structure as the novel, one major and notable event is left out. Struan's meeting with Jin Qua early in the film to obtain the forty lac dollars of silver to pay Brock omits Jin Qua's stipulation that four special coins be broken in half, with Struan keeping four halves and the other four being distributed by Jin Qua. When a half coin is presented to Struan that matches his own half, he is obligated to do a favor to the bearer. The first favor is called in later in the novel, by the pirate Wu Kwok. The film does not convey this.



There had been numerous attempts to film Tai Pan over the years.

1968 MGM proposed version

Martin Ransohoff of Filmways bought the rights in 1966 in conjunction with MGM for $500,000 plus a percentage of the profits. Clavell would write the script and co-produce.[5][6] (At the time Clavell was also working as a filmmaker, directing Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love.)

Patrick McGoohan was announced to play Dirk Struan (the first of a two-picture deal he had with MGM) with Michael Anderson attached to direct. Carlo Ponti came in as co-producer. However the movie would have cost an estimated $26 million (later reduced to $20 million[7]) and was postponed.[8][9] It lingered on for a number of years before being finally cancelled when James T. Aubrey took over as president and cancelled the project.[10]

Late 1970s proposed version

In 1975 it was announced Run Run Shaw had bought the rights from MGM and would collaborate with Universal Studios to make a $12 million film. Carl Foreman wrote a screenplay.[11][12] However no film was made.

In the late 1970s Georges-Alain Vuille obtained the rights and George MacDonald Fraser was hired to adapt the novel.[13] Fraser's script met with approval - Vuille hired him to write a sequel - Richard Fleischer was attached to direct, and Steve McQueen agreed to star for a reported fee of $10 million. However McQueen later dropped out of the project.[14]

Roger Moore became briefly attached, with John Guillermin mentioned as director of a possible mini series. However finance could not be arranged. "If it's offered to me again I'll do it," said Moore. "Quite frankly, it's one of the best scripts I've ever read."[15] For a time Sean Connery was mooted as star for director Martin Ritt. "I've always wanted Sean to do it," said Clavell.[16]

Vuille eventually lost the rights and Fraser's script was not used in the final film.[14]

Dino de Laurentiis

The popularity of the novel and TV series of Shogun made Tai Pan continually attractive to filmmakers. In late 1983 it was announced Dino de Laurentiis had the rights.[17] He set up the film with Orion.[18] Sean Connery turned down the lead role.

The film was directed by Daryl Duke and starred Bryan Brown, who had worked together on The Thorn Birds.

It was the first English language movie shot in China. Shooting was extremely difficult, due in part to abundant red tape.[2] De Laurentiis later claimed filming in China was a big mistake.[19]


The film gained poor reviews. Walter Goodman of The New York Times said of it, "You have to say this for Tai-Pan: it's ridiculous - but in a big way. It's two hours of Super Comics: Bearded Brutes! Busty Belles! Bloody Blades! Exotic Settings! Colorful Costumes! A Beheading! A Castration! A Typhoon!"[20] Roger Ebert called it "the embodiment of those old movie posters where the title is hewn from solid rock and tiny figures scale it with cannons strapped to their backs, while the bosoms of their women heave in the foreground. [...] Of the women of 'Tai-Pan,' it can be said that Joan Collins could have played each and every one of them at some point in her career."[21] The Los Angeles Times' Kevin Thomas said, "anyone who enjoyed James Clavell's epic novel of the early China traders can only wish that it had never arrived. So truly and consistently terrible is 'Tai-Pan' that it could stand as a textbook example of how not to adapt a historical adventure-romance into a movie."[22] Chen was nominated for two Golden Raspberry Award as Worst Actress and Worst New Star.

Box office

The film was not a box office success.[23]

"I haven't seen the film," said Clavell in 1986. "It just hasn't been convenient for me to see it... I would like to get the rights to my book back and turn it into a mini-series."[24]


  1. "Chinese red tape causes problems". Daily News of Los Angeles. 1986-01-17. Retrieved 2010-06-13.
  2. Keel news... Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); Jan 9, 1986; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune pg. 24
  3. De Laurentiis PRODUCER'S PICTURE DARKENS: KNOEDELSEDER, WILLIAM K, Jr. Los Angeles Times 30 Aug 1987: 1.
  4. '86 a Strong Year for Film Industry By ALJEAN HARMETZ Special to The New York Times New York Times (1923-Current file); Jan 17, 1987; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. 11
  5. 'Tai-Pan' Means Big Novel, Big Money, Big Movie: More on Movies By A.H. WEILER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 03 July 1966: 45.
  6. Kate DuPont Set for 'Debut' Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 06 July 1966: c11.
  7. MGM Won't Drop Plans for 'Tai-Pan' Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 29 July 1968: g15.
  8. 'Tai-Pan' Filming Postponed Over Costs The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C] 23 July 1968: B6.
  9. MGM Seeking Oriental for Lead in 'Tai Pan' Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 15 Aug 1969: d16.
  10. New King of MGM's Jungle Cracking Whip: New King of the MGM Jungle New King of the MGM Jungle Warga, Wayne. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 15 Feb 1970: q1.
  11. Clavell rides 'Shogun' to film Lochte, Dick. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 10 Oct 1976: t2.
  12. Birns, Jack (8 Jan 1978). "The Golden Claw of Run Run Shaw". Los Angeles Times. p. j1.
  13. Buckley, Tom (26 May 1978). "At the Movies: Costs of making 'Superman' go up, up and away". New York Times. p. C6.
  14. George MacDonald Fraser, The Light's On at Signpost, HarperCollins 2002 p198-212
  15. BACK-TO-BACK SPYING IN ROGER MOORE FILMS Mann, Roderick. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 14 Apr 1981: g1.
  16. CLAVELL: CHEERS FOR CHAMBERLAIN'S CRAFT: CHAMBERLAIN Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Feb 12, 1980; pg. G1
  17. 'Shogun' author strikes again, with help from De Laurentiis Ryan, Desmond Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); Dec 8, 1983; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune pg. E15
  18. DE LAURENTIIS' EPIC PLAN FOR EMBASSY: FILM CLIPS FILM CLIPS Mathews, Jack Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 9, 1985; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. H1
  19. Tai-pan' Contrasts Old China and New: 'Tai-pan' Contrasts Old China and New By JOHN F. BURNSZHUHAI, China New York Times (1923-Current file); Apr 27, 1986; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. H17
  20. Goodman, Walter (1986-11-07). "Tai Pan (1986)". Movies.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2012-08-23.
  21. "Tai-Pan :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews". Rogerebert.suntimes.com. 1986-11-07. Retrieved 2012-08-23.
  22. Thomas, Kevin (1992-07-12). "Movie Reviews : Ah! Love Affairs With Foreign-Flavored Accents : 'Tai-Pan' - Los Angeles Times". Articles.latimes.com. Retrieved 2012-08-23.
  23. DAVID T. FRIENDLY (1986-11-13). "Reagans on 'Soul Man': Thumbs Up - Los Angeles Times". Articles.latimes.com. Retrieved 2012-08-23.
  24. Clavell is a big winner on the small screen Davis, Ivor. The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 20 Feb 1988: P.8.
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