Clavell, James DuMaresq

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Clavell, James DuMaresq

(b. 10 October 1924 in Sydney, Australia; d. 6 September 1994 in Vevey, Switzerland), screenwriter, director, producer, and novelist, best known for Shogun, which established him as a master of modern fictional multicultural analysis.

Self-defined as a “half-Irish Englishman with Scots overtones,” Clavell was the son of the Royal British Navy Captain Richard Charles Clavell and homemaker Eileen Collis, who instilled in him a sense of duty and propriety, and pride in his family’s naval heritage and Norman descent. He initially attended Portsmouth Grammar School in England, but his father’s military duty stations in Commonwealth port cities such as Hong Kong assured him a varied education, including foreign languages and first-hand acculturation. On completing public school in England at age seventeen in 1940, Clavell joined the British Royal Artillery, serving in Malaysia from 1940 to 1946.

Wounded in 1941 and captured in 1942, Clavell spent three-and-a-half years in two Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, one in Java, the other the notorious Changi prison near Singapore, where 140,000 out of 150,000 inmates died. His experiences in Changi taught Clavell to value individuals over class or duty, free enterprise and capitalistic ventures over socialism, and loyalty to a small, interdependent group of friends over loyalty to groupthink or religious abstractions. Suffering from what came to be called post-traumatic stress disorder, he could not face his memories of the camps for fourteen years—until nightmares, chills, and other signs of deep-rooted psychological stress led him to write his first novel, King Rat (1962), as a therapeutic coming-to-terms with the costs of surviving. In his character Peter Marlowe, Clavell paints a self-portrait of an adaptable, resilient youth who finds British military values unsuited for the brutal conditions of Changi. This cathartic working out of the choices facing humans reduced to subhuman conditions renewed him spiritually.

In 1946, after a motorcycle accident left him lame in one leg, Clavell received a disability discharge at the rank of captain and entered the University of Birmingham in England for a year. He married April Stride, an aspiring ballerina and actress, on 20 February 1951, and they had two daughters. A visit to a movie set gave him a new career direction, first in film distribution and next in television production in New York City (1953). He then worked as a carpenter in Hollywood, California, while searching for a screenwriting position. A collaborative screenwriting of Far Alert began his movie/writing career, although the movie was never released. His early screenplays include The Fly (1958), Watusi (1958), and The Great Escape (1963), for which Clavell received a Screen Writers Award. In 1963 Clavell—whose wartime experiences made him appreciate American enterprise, ingenuity, individualism, and strength of will—became a naturalized American citizen. In addition to the screenplays 633 Squadron (1964) and The Satan Bug (1965), he wrote, produced, and directed films like Fife Gates to Hell (1959), Walk Like a Dragon (1960), To Sir with Love (1966), Where’s Jack? (1968), and The Last Valley (1969), the latter a haunting anti-war action film.

Writing screenplays gave Clavell the confidence and a 1960 Hollywood screenwriters’ strike provided the free time to write King Rat. Five other Asian-themed novels followed. To write Tai-Pan (1966) and its sequel Noble House (1981), Clavell took his family to Hong Kong in 1963, where he refamiliarized himself with the city, its history, and its rich local color. Writing about Changi instilled in Clavell an appreciation of cultural relativism as expressed in his most popular work, Shogun (1975), and its sequel, GaiJin (1993). Clavell’s horror at the Islamic Revolution in Iran and his personal sympathy for expatriate British and Iranian friends inspired his novel Whirlwind (1986). Clavell’s novels, which take place in time periods ranging from 1606 to 1979, argue the value of cultural interaction to promote understanding and change, the dangers of ethnic homogeneity, the importance of continued contact with the East for the long-term interests of East and West, and the value of individualism, competition, and capitalism.

Clavell was the executive producer of two television miniseries of his novels: Shogun (broadcast in September 1980) and Noble House (1988). An estimated 130 million viewers tuned in to the twelve-hour Shogun, shot in Japan; a two-and-a-half-hour movie version of the miniseries was released in 1981. Clavell worked on casting, script revisions, and footage cuts to assure authenticity and to capture on film the cultural and psychological nuances of his books. He courageously insisted that the Japanese characters speak in their native language, without subtitles, making Shogun one of the first films in which extended multilingual exchanges occur. His miniseries taught millions worldwide about the history and culture of Japan, China, Macao, and Hong Kong. Unfortunately, Clavell died before he could do a planned miniseries on Whirlwind. While producing his novels, Clavell wrote the play Countdown to Armageddon: E = mc2 (1966), some poetry, and two children’s books, The Children’s Story … But Not Just For Children (1981) and Thmmp-O-Moto: A Fantasy (1986).

Clavell was over six feet tall and solidly built, with broad shoulders, a strong Scottish chin, brown eyes, and a ruddy complexion. During his moviemaking and writing career, he traveled a great deal and resided in many places, including England, California, British Columbia, the south of France, and Switzerland. Because of increased prices and taxes when President François Mitterand’s government came to power, he and his family left France in 1981 for Gstaad, a wealthy mountain resort in Switzerland. There Clavell became close friends with a neighbor, the actor Roger Moore. The well-known conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. was another friend.

Clavell read widely, conversed with people from the cultures he was interested in, and then used his imagination to build a visual image, one sensitive to cross-cultural interaction. Suffering from cancer, he died of a stroke at age sixty-nine, and was survived by his wife of forty-three years and two daughters. Eric Major of the London publishing house of Hodder and Stoughton called him “one of the great epic storytellers of our age.” Clavell’s life-long defense of capitalistic free enterprise as the best hope for developing nations and his promotion of binding international ties to undercut nationalistic differences directly resulted from his surviving Changi; his psychologically complex, multicultural novels and films opened up new cultures and points of view while exploring past conflicts.

Gina Macdonald, James Clavell: A Critical Companion (1996), is the only full-length treatment of his novels. Published interviews with James Clavell include those of Archer Winsten, “Novelist James Clavell,” New York Post (17 May 1971), Cynthia Gorney, “Interview,” Washington Post (4 February 1979), Edwin McDowell, “Behind the Best Sellers,” New York Times Book Review (17 May 1981), Stella Dong, “James Clavell,” Publishers Weekly (24 October 1987), and Cathy Nolan, “Talking with … James Clavell; The Rising Sun Never Sets on His Empire,” People Weekly (10 May 1993). Obituaries are in the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and a London Associated press release (all on 8 Sept. 1994).

Gina Macdonald