James Clavell

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James Clavell
BornCharles Edmund Dumaresq Clavell
(1921-10-10)10 October 1921
Sydney, Australia
Died7 September 1994(1994-09-07) (aged 72)
Vevey, Vaud, Switzerland
  • Novelist
  • screenwriter
  • director
NationalityBritish, United States
April Stride
(m. 1949)
Children2 (with April)
1 (with Caroline Fischer)[1]

James Clavell (born Charles Edmund Dumaresq Clavell; 10 October 1921[2][3] – 7 September 1994) was an Australian-born British (later naturalized American) writer, screenwriter, director, and World War II veteran and prisoner of war. Clavell is best known as the author of his Asian Saga novels, a number of which have had television adaptations. Clavell also wrote such screenplays as those for The Fly (1958) (based on the short story by George Langelaan) and The Great Escape (1963) (based on the personal account of Paul Brickhill). He directed the popular 1967 film To Sir, with Love for which he also wrote the script.


Early life[edit]

Born in Australia, Clavell was the son of Commander Richard Charles Clavell, a Royal Navy officer who was stationed in Australia with the Royal Australian Navy from 1920 to 1922. Richard Clavell was posted back to England when James was nine months old. Clavell was educated at Portsmouth Grammar School.[4]

World War II[edit]

In 1940, Clavell joined the Royal Artillery. Though trained for desert warfare, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 he was sent to Singapore to fight the Japanese. The ship taking his unit was sunk en route to Singapore, and the survivors were picked up by a Dutch boat fleeing to India. The commander, described by Clavell years later as a "total twit", insisted that they be dropped off at the nearest port to fight the war despite having no weapons.[5]

Imprisoned in Changi[edit]

Shot in the face,[5] he was captured in Java in 1942 and sent to a Japanese prisoner of war camp on Java. Later he was transferred to Changi Prison in Singapore.[6]

In 1981, Clavell recounted:

Changi became my university instead of my prison. Among the inmates there were experts in all walks of life—the high and the low roads. I studied and absorbed everything I could from physics to counterfeiting, but most of all I learned the art of surviving, the most important course of all.[5]

Prisoners were fed a quarter of a pound of rice per day, one egg per week and occasional vegetables. Clavell believed that if atomic bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki he would not have survived the war.[5]

Clavell did not talk about his wartime experiences with anyone, even his wife, for 15 years after the war. For a time he carried a can of sardines in his pocket at all times and fought an urge to forage for food in trash cans. He also experienced bad dreams and a nervous stomach kept him awake at night.[5]

Post-war career[edit]

By 1946 Clavell had become a captain, but a motorcycle accident ended his military career. He enrolled with the University of Birmingham, where he met April Stride, an actress, whom he married in 1949 (date of marriage sometimes given as 1951).[7] He would visit her on the film sets where she was working and began to be interested in becoming a film director.[8]

Early work on films[edit]

Clavell entered the film industry via distribution and worked at that in England for a number of years. He tried to get into producing but had no luck so started writing screenplays. In 1954 he moved to New York, then to Hollywood. While trying to break into screenwriting he paid the bills working as a carpenter.[8]

In 1956, he sold a script about pilots to RKO, Far Alert.[9] The same year Michael Pate bought a story of his, Forbidden Territory, for filming.[10]

Neither was filmed but Far Alert kept being sold and re-sold. "In 18 months it brought in $87,000", he later said. "We kept getting paid for writing it and rewriting it as it went from one studio to another. It was wonderful."[8] It was later sold to Fox where it attracted the attention of Robert L. Lippert who hired Clavell to write the science-fiction horror movie The Fly (1958). This became a hit and launched Clavell as a screenwriter.

He wrote Watusi (1959) for director Kurt Neumann, who had also made The Fly.

Clavell wrote Five Gates to Hell (1959) for Lippert, and when they could not find a suitable director, Clavell was given the job.[11]

Paramount hired Clavell to write a film about the Bounty mutineers.[12] It ended up not being made. Neither was a proposed movie about Francis Gary Powers made.[13] Clavell did write, produce, and direct a Western at Paramount, Walk Like a Dragon (1960).

In 1959, Clavell wrote "Moon Landing" and "First Woman in the Moon", two episodes of Men into Space, a "day after tomorrow"-style science fiction drama, which depicted, in realistic terms, the (at the time) near future of space exploration.

In 1960, he had written a Broadway show with John Sturges, White Alice, a thriller set in the Arctic.[14] It was never produced.

Early prose and screenplay work[edit]

In 1960, the Writers Guild went on strike, meaning Clavell was unable to work. He decided to write a novel, King Rat, based on his time at Changi. It took him three months and several more months after that to rework it. The book was published in 1962 and sold well. It was turned into a film in 1965.[8]

In 1961, Clavell announced he had formed his own company, Cee Productions, who would make the films King Rat, White Alice and No Hands on the Clock.[15]

In 1962, he signed a multi picture contract with a Canadian company to produce and direct two films there, Circle of Greed and The Sweet and the Bitter.[16] Only the second was made and it was not released until 1967.

He wrote scripts for the war films The Great Escape (1963) and 633 Squadron (1964).[17]

He wrote a short story, "The Children's Story" (1964) and the script for The Satan Bug (1965), directed by John Sturges who had made The Great Escape. He also wrote Richard Sahib for Sturges which was never made.[18]

Clavell wanted to write a second novel because "that separates the men from the boys".[19] The money from King Rat enabled him to spend two years researching and then writing what became Tai-Pan (1966). It was a huge best-seller, and Clavell sold the film rights for a sizeable amount (although the film would not be made until 1986).[20]

Leading film director[edit]

Clavell returned to filmmaking. He wrote, produced and directed To Sir, With Love (1967), featuring Sidney Poitier and based on E. R. Braithwaite's semiautobiographical 1959 book. It was a huge critical and commercial success.[21]

Clavell was now in much demand as a filmmaker. He produced and directed Where's Jack? (1969), a highwayman film which was a commercial failure.[22] So too was an epic film about the Thirty Years' War, The Last Valley (1971).[23]

Career as novelist[edit]

Clavell returned to novel writing, which was the focus of the remainder of his career. He spent three years researching and writing Shōgun (1975), about an Englishman who becomes a samurai in feudal Japan. It was another massive best seller. Clavell was heavily involved in the 1980 miniseries which starred Richard Chamberlain and achieved huge ratings.

In the late 1970s he spent three years researching and writing his fourth novel, Noble House (1981), set in Hong Kong in 1963. It was another best seller and was turned into a miniseries in 1986.[24]

Clavell briefly returned to filmmaking and directed a thirty-minute adaptation of his novelette The Children's Story. He was meant to do a sequel to Shogun but instead wrote a novel about the 1979 revolution in Iran, Whirlwind (1986).[25]

Clavell eventually returned to the Shogun sequel, writing Gai-Jin (1993). This was his last completed novel.



The New York Times said that "Clavell has a gift. It may be something that cannot be taught or earned. He breathes narrative ... He writes in the oldest and grandest tradition that fiction knows".[26] His first novel, King Rat (1962), was a semi-fictional account of his prison experiences at Changi. When the book was published it became an immediate best-seller, and three years later it was adapted as a movie. His next novel, Tai-Pan (1966), was a fictional account of Jardine Matheson's successful career in Hong Kong,[27] as told via the character who was to become Clavell's heroic archetype, Dirk Struan.[28] Struan's descendants were characters in almost all of his following books. Tai-Pan was adapted as a movie in 1986.

Clavell's third novel, Shōgun (1975), is set in 17th century Japan, and it tells the story of a shipwrecked English navigator in Japan, based on that of William Adams. When the story was made into a TV miniseries in 1980, produced by Clavell, it became the second highest rated miniseries in history with an audience of more than 120 million, after Roots.[29]

Clavell's fourth novel, Noble House (1981), became a best-seller that year and was adapted into a TV miniseries in 1988.

Following the success of Noble House, Clavell wrote Thrump-o-moto (1985), Whirlwind (1986), and Gai-Jin (1993).

Peter Marlowe[edit]

Peter Marlowe is Clavell's author surrogate[5] and a character of the novels King Rat and Noble House (1981); he is also mentioned once (as a friend of Andrew Gavallan's) in Whirlwind (1986). Featured most prominently in King Rat, Marlowe is an English prisoner of war in Changi Prison during World War II. In Noble House, set two decades later, he is a novelist researching a book about Hong Kong. Marlowe's ancestors are also mentioned in other Clavell novels.

In Noble House Marlowe is mentioned as having written a novel about Changi which, although fictionalised, is based on real events (like those in King Rat). When asked which character was based on him, Marlowe answers, "Perhaps I'm not there at all", although in a later scene, he admits he was "the hero, of course".[30]


The Asian Saga consists of six novels:

  1. King Rat (1962), set in a Japanese POW camp in Singapore in 1945.
  2. Tai-Pan (1966), set in Hong Kong in 1841
  3. Shōgun (1975), set in Japan from 1600 onwards
  4. Noble House (1981), set in Hong Kong in 1963
  5. Whirlwind (1986), set in Iran in 1979.
  6. Gai-Jin (1993), set in Japan in 1862

Children's stories[edit]


Interactive fiction[edit]

Politics and later life[edit]

In 1963 Clavell became a naturalised citizen of the United States.[5] Politically, he was said to have been an ardent individualist and proponent of laissez-faire capitalism, as many of his books' heroes exemplify. Clavell admired Ayn Rand, founder of the Objectivist school of philosophy, and sent her a copy of Noble House during 1981 inscribed: "This is for Ayn Rand—one of the real, true talents on this earth for which many, many thanks. James C, New York, 2 September 81."[34]

Between 1970 and 1990, Clavell lived at Fredley Manor near Mickleham, located in Surrey in South East England.[35]

Death and legacy[edit]

In 1994, Clavell died in Switzerland from a stroke while suffering from cancer. He died one month before his 73rd birthday.

After sponsorship by his widow, the library and archive of the Royal Artillery Museum at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, in southeast London, was renamed the James Clavell Library in his honour.[36] The library was later closed pending the opening of a new facility in Salisbury, Wiltshire;[37] however, James Clavell Square on the Royal Arsenal development on Woolwich riverside remains.


  1. ^ Nigel Rosser (7 July 2004). "Brando daughter is London lawyer". London Evening Standard. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  2. ^ "James Du Maresq or Charles Edmund Clavell, California, Southern District Court (Central) Naturalization Index, 1915–1976". FamilySearch. Retrieved 26 January 2014. Date of birth often given as 10 October 1924.
  3. ^ "Births". The Sydney Morning Herald. 11 October 1921. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  4. ^ "Obituary: James Clavell". Independent.co.uk. 8 September 1994.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Bernstein, Peter (13 September 1981). "Making of a Literary Shogun". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  6. ^ Grimes, William (8 September 1994). "James Clavell, Best-Selling Storyteller of Far Eastern Epics, Is Dead at 69". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  7. ^ "FreeBMD Entry Info". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 26 January 2014.
  8. ^ a b c d Dudar, Helen (12 April 1981). "An author at home in Hollywood and Hong Kong". Chicago Tribune. p. e1.
  9. ^ Schallert, Edwin (19 June 1956). "Drama: Marine Rescue Story to Star Arness; Stage, Screen Blend Efforts". Los Angeles Times. p. 19.
  10. ^ Schallert, Edwin (9 October 1956). "Bon Voyage' Announced as Major Buy; 'Holiday in Monaco' Wald Film". Los Angeles Times. p. C11.
  11. ^ Weaver, Tom (19 February 2003). Double Feature Creature Attack: A Monster Merger of Two More Volumes of Classic Interviews. McFarland. p. 320. ISBN 9780786482153.
  12. ^ "SCHARY SUPPORTS WRITERS' STRIKE: Independent Film Producer Not Affected by Walkout Defends Pay in TV Sales". New York Times. 27 October 1959. p. 42.
  13. ^ Vernon, Scott (28 May 1960). "U-2 Incident Causes Movie Repercussions". Los Ambrose Times. p. A7.
  14. ^ SAM ZOLOTOW (5 August 1960). "ELLIS LISTS STARS OF 'HAPPY ENDING': Ruth Chatterton, Pert Kelton and Conrad Nagel to Head Cast at New Hope, Pa". New York Times. p. 13.
  15. ^ "Irwin Allen Signs Multiple Film Deal". Los Angeles Times. 28 June 1961. p. C11.
  16. ^ "FILMLAND EVENTS: Curtis' 'Playboy' Goes to Columbia". Los Angeles Times. 11 January 1962. p. B9.
  17. ^ "Writers Guild Foundation Library Database". Writers Guild Foundation. Archived from the original on 9 September 2015. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  18. ^ A.H. WEILER (3 May 1964). "BY WAY OF REPORT: John Sturges' 'Sahib' – Together Again". New York Times. p. X9.
  19. ^ Rosenfield, Paul (19 April 1981). "AUTHOR JAMES CLAVELL: A LEGEND IN HIS OWN TIME". Los Angeles Times. p. L5.
  20. ^ A.H. WEILER. New York Times 3 July 1966. "'Tai-Pan' Means Big Novel, Big Money, Big Movie: More on Movies". p. 45.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  21. ^ Warga, Wayne (20 April 1969). "A Blue-Ribbon Packager of Movie Deals". Los Angeles Times. p. w1.
  22. ^ Michael Deeley, Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: My Life in Cult Movies, Pegasus Books, 2009 p 43-44
  23. ^ "ABC's 5 Years of Film Production Profits & Losses". Variety. 31 May 1973. p. 3.
  24. ^ Dudar, Helen (12 April 1981). "An author at home in Hollywood and Hong Kong". Chicago Tribune. p. E1.
  25. ^ Allemang, John (29 November 1986). "Clavell bullies the bullies now that he's No. 1". The Globe and Mail. Toronto. p. E.3.
  26. ^ Schott, Webster (22 June 1975). "Shogun". The New York Times. p. 236. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 15 March 2018.
  27. ^ Robyn Meredith, "Sailing From Old to New Asia; Jardine Matheson is ever more a play on its traditional region", Forbes Asia, Volume 4, Issue 15 (15 September 2008), p. 88.
  28. ^ "Book (1966): Tai-Pan, James Clavell", South China Morning Post (29 March 2009), p. 7.
  29. ^ Guttridge, Peter (9 September 1994). "Obituary: James Clavell". Independent. Retrieved 18 January 2019.
  30. ^ Clavell, James (1981). Noble House (Chapter 65).
  31. ^ Clavell, James (1986). Thrump-O-Moto. George Sharp (illustrator) (Hardcover ed.). Delacorte Press. ISBN 9780385295048.
  32. ^ Virgin Games (1986). "James Clavell's Shogun". Moby Games.
  33. ^ Infocom, Inc. (1988). "James Clavell's Shogun". Moby Games.
  34. ^ Enright, Marsha Familaro (May 2007), James Clavell's Asian Adventures, Fountainhead Institute
  35. ^ Churchill, Penny (9 March 2017). "For Your Eyes Only: The Surrey manor where James Clavell hosted 007 (and JR Ewing)". Country Life. Farnborough, Hampshire. Retrieved 21 September 2020.
  36. ^ "James Clavell Library – Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London, UK". Waymarking.com. Retrieved 27 February 2017.
  37. ^ "Firepower – The Royal Artillery Museum". The National Archives. Retrieved 27 February 2017.

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