‘Have you ever been shot at?’: how James Clavell battled his Shogun critics

Yoko Shimada and Richard Chamberlain in the 1980 TV adaptation of Shogun
Yoko Shimada and Richard Chamberlain in the 1980 TV adaptation of Shogun - Alamy

As a British prisoner of war in Changi Jail during the Second World World War, James Clavell was approached one day by a Japanese officer, who offered to lend him his samurai sword. Clavell declined this opportunity to commit hara-kiri; but he was struck by the thoughtfulness of this officer, who assumed Clavell would be eaten up with shame at having allowed himself to be captured.

Incarcerated by the Japanese in one of the most notorious prisons of all time, Clavell developed a fascination with his captors, finding their ruthlessness and rigid codes of honour both repellent and inspiring.

Years later, when he had become one of the world’s bestselling authors, he said that one of the major impulses behind novels such as Shōgun and King Rat was to give Western readers “a glimmering of understanding towards the Japanese”.

Between 1962 and 1993 James Clavell published six novels, most of them the size of breezeblocks, which constituted what he came to call The Asian Saga. Spanning many countries and several centuries, the Saga enjoyed phenomenal sales throughout the world (asked how many languages his books were published in, he replied: “I think it’s all of them”) and came to define millions of readers’ notion of the Far Eastern mindset.

As so often happens with very popular novelists, Clavell rapidly fell out of fashion in the years after his death in 1994; there were no events or documentaries to mark his centenary in 2021. And yet Clavell ought to be remembered – not just for his books but for the fascinating details of his astonishing life.

The privations and horrors he endured in Changi make for a hell of a story – as he proved when he made them the subject of his first novel, King Rat, in 1962. And in addition to being one of the most successful authors of all time – in the 1980s he secured a record-breaking advance of $5 million for his novel Whirlwind – he also enjoyed an outstanding career in the cinema, as a screenwriter on such classic films as The Great Escape and The Fly, and as writer-director of the enduring Sidney Poitier vehicle To Sir, With Love. In his private life, he fathered a love child who was adopted by Marlon Brando, resulting in Brando’s pursuing Clavell through the courts in an increasingly deranged vendetta.

Happily Clavell may now be on the verge of a revival. His 1975 historical novel Shōgun – which chronicles how the first Englishman to set foot in Japan becomes a samurai – has now been made into a violent, stylish Disney/FX miniseries starring Cosmo Jarvis, Hiroyuki Sanada and Anna Sawai.

Shōgun was Clavell’s third novel (though chronologically the first in the Asian Saga) and although his previous books had enjoyed healthy sales, this was the one that pushed them into the stratosphere. The inspiration for the story came when Clavell was idly flicking through one of his daughter’s schoolbooks and came across the sentence: “In 1600 an Englishman named Will Adams came to Japan and became a samurai.”

Here was the chance for Clavell to delve into the origins of the Japanese character – through the eyes of his English hero, renamed John Blackthorne – as he had seen it at close quarters in Changi, presenting his Feudal-era samurai warriors as both highly cultured and capable of great cruelty. The book also introduced Western readers to then unfamiliar spiritual concepts such as Karma and Wa. (If you listen to Clavell’s appearance on Desert Island Discs, there’s something pleasingly offbeat about him discussing these subjects in his clipped officer-class accent.)

It seemed that anyone and everyone read Shōgun. The New York Times reported that Henry Kissinger had so fallen under the book’s spell that he adopted the characters’ method of speaking to their womenfolk, and started ordering his wife about while addressing her as “Woman!”

James Clavell in 1981
James Clavell in 1981 - Getty

In 1980 Clavell oversaw the making of a five-part television adaptation of Shōgun, filmed entirely in Japan and starring the leading swashbuckler of the era Richard Chamberlain as Blackthorne, alongside Toshiro Mifune and Yoko Shimada. As executive producer, Clavell insisted against the advice of the network executives that long stretches of the series should be in Japanese without subtitles, to emphasise the disorientating effect on Blackthorne of finding himself in this alien world after being shipwrecked.

The viewing public were not put off: an estimated 30 per cent of the US population was glued to the series, and Clavell recalled that restaurants were empty on the nights it was shown, their staff lugging in television sets to watch it themselves.

The popularity of the novel and the miniseries caused some concern for scholars, however, who rushed to point out numerous inaccuracies, from the anachronistic attitudes of the Japanese characters to the constant use of carrier pigeons in the story, despite there not being any in 17th-century Japan. When the series was shown in Japan it was prefaced with an introductory speech by Yoko Shimada, who played Blackthorne’s love interest Mariko, and the former US ambassador Edwin O Reischauer, imploring the audience to forgive the errors.

Clavell was contemptuous of the pedantic objections of American academics. “I seem to have usurped their function more or less single-handedly by creating an acceptance of the Japanese culture, which is exactly what they’re supposed to be doing,” he observed with typical self-possession.

”Have you ever been in a war? Have you ever been shot at?” Clavell barked when a New York Times reporter questioned his inaccuracies. In his view, his experiences as a soldier gave his warrior tale the authenticity it needed. “It’s very difficult for someone sitting in Harvard or Yale as a professor of history to really know what it’s like when somebody stuffs a bayonet in your face and pricks your skin … Obviously, they’ve never been put in a position of danger.”

Clavell’s life began in Sydney where his father, an officer in the Royal Navy, was on secondment: he was christened in the bell of HMS Melbourne, with Dame Nellie Melba singing at the ceremony. He grew up in England, and signed up with the Royal Artillery not long after the outbreak of the Second World War.

In 1942, after several months of jungle warfare in Java, he was captured by the Japanese and incarcerated in Changi Jail in Singapore. He was shot in the cheek while trying to evade capture – he bore the scar for the rest of his life – and with no access to medical supplies plugged the hole himself with a piece of cotton wool soaked in vinegar. This made chewing difficult, although as he recalled this was not much of a handicap as there was so little to eat.

The prison was rife with disease and malnutrition: only one in 15 men survived. After three years there Clavell, having seen most of his friends die, was released after the Japanese surrender. He returned to Britain ostensibly a hero and certainly an object of curiosity – “I know how animals feel in the zoo” – but felt deep shame, as the scion of a martial family going back generations, at having been defeated and captured. When he got off the ship at Greenock he was met by a brass hat carrying a certificate of congratulation signed by the King: Clavell tore it up in the man’s face.

Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, co-written by James Clavell
Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, co-written by James Clavell - Getty

He went on to Birmingham University but like many ex-military men could not settle to study. His ambition was to be a film director, and he endured some years of tedious work as a distributor to try and make his way in the industry. In 1953 he decided to move to the US in an attempt to get work as a screenwriter.

He was not honest when executives asked him what films he had worked on. “I would mumble 50 things that sounded reasonably successful, a parody on the latest success, and they would say, ‘Oh really’. And particularly if you speak with an English accent, it does give you an advantage,” he recalled in 1981. “My writing opportunities or film opportunities have all been given to me by Americans. You can go there with nothing as we did, my wife and I, and gain a few dollars. We starve on a higher level every year.”

Clavell’s first great success as a screenwriter was The Fly (1958), starring David Hedison as the mad scientist whose experiments result in his head being transferred to the body of a fly and vice versa. In later life Clavell’s party piece was to do a spot-on imitation of the man-fly squeaking “Help me! Help me!” after getting caught in a spider’s web.

As well as co-writing The Great Escape (1963), Clavell directed adventure pictures and Westerns such as Five Gates to Hell (1959) and Walk Like a Dragon (1960). He recalled that he wangled his way into directing by pooh-pooing the studio’s choice of directors for his screenplays, and eagerly suggesting people he knew would be unavailable or too expensive, until he emerged as the only option. He applied, he said, the rules of survival he learned in Changi: “If you understand the game, [you’ll be] fine.”

The 1958 horror movie The Fly was Clavell's first screenplay
The 1958 horror movie The Fly was Clavell's first screenplay - COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL

But it was a writer’s strike that led to the most lucrative stage of his career. For many years after the end of the War Clavell didn’t breathe a word to anyone about what he underwent in Changi, but at the start of the Sixties had started to unburden himself a little to his wife. When the writers’ strike left him with time on his hands, she told him he should set his experiences down in a book. One day she went so far as to lock him in his study and told him he could come out when he had written five pages.

Once he started the dam broke and after eight weeks he had a manuscript of 850 pages (although unlike his later books, it was drastically pruned by his publisher). King Rat, published in 1962, tells the story of the friendship between Changi prisoners Peter Marlowe, a young RAF lieutenant, and an American NCO known as “King”, who as the chief black marketeer sits at the top of the prison hierarchy: he is the only prisoner to own underpants.

The British officers in the prison are snobs and bullies who steal their men’s food and are stupid enough to believe King when he sells them the rats he breeds, which he tells them are a delicacy called “mouse deer”. By contrast, the Japanese officers, even at their most ruthless, are always invested with dignity. The literary scholar John Sutherland has summarised the moral of the story as: “we won the war but they were the better soldiers.”

James Clavell with Sidney Poitier on the set of To Sir With Love
James Clavell with Sidney Poitier on the set of To Sir With Love - Getty

King Rat was filmed by Bryan Forbes in 1965, but Clavell wrote and directed a more memorable movie two years later in To Sir, With Love, based on ER Braithwaite’s memoir of coming to London as an immigrant from British Guiana and unable to find any work except as a teacher in a tough East End school. The film saw Sidney Poitier run ragged by pupils played by the likes of Judy Geeson and Lulu; both Poitier and Clavell made a fortune, as their contracts gave them a percentage of the profits on a cheaply made but hugely popular picture that grossed $15 million.

With money in the bank, Clavell began to devote more time to writing. His second novel, Tai-Pan (1966), was a sort of blood-drenched boardroom saga, about the founding of a trading company (based on Jardine Matheson) in Hong Kong in the 1840s: the title means “Merchant Prince”. An admirer of Ayn Rand, Clavell was fascinated by the activities of swashbuckling capitalists, and, more importantly, knew how to make them riveting to his readers.

After Shōgun, Clavell returned to Hong Kong in Noble House (1981) which was set in 1963 and featured his alter ego Peter Marlowe from King Rat, now a writer researching a novel, as well as descendants of characters from Shōgun and Tai Pan.

The Asian Saga was completed by Whirlwind (1986), a tale of contemporary Iran, and Gai-Jin (1993), set in 1860s Japan. The latter book, The Telegraph’s reviewer notes, was set in “a world of intrigue, violence and betrayal, where the only certainty is that no one can be trusted … It is also an almost totally male environment, in which men gulp back whisky, visit prostitutes and slam their fists on the table in order to ask ‘What the hell is going on?’”

Clavell’s rules for writing were simple: “how the clouds look, what the sunset is like – all bulls--t. What happens? Who does what to whom? That’s all you need.” Despite the high level of testosterone in his books, he claimed that he had more female readers than male.

One aspect of Clavell’s life was perhaps more bizarre than anything in his books. In the 1970s Clavell had an affair with an American actress called Caroline Barrett, resulting in the birth of a daughter, Petra, whom Clavell refused to acknowledge. Barrett went on to work as personal assistant to Marlon Brando, and in the 1980s Brando decided to adopt the girl and fund a £7 million palimony lawsuit against Clavell on Barrett’s behalf.

According to Brando’s personal make-up assistant Philip Rhodes, the actor became obsessed with the lawsuit, spending hours poring over legal tomes: “he had never prepared for a picture or a play as much as he did with that case.” Brando seemed to become obsessed with Clavell, taking every opportunity to denounce his neglect of his natural daughter – despite the fact, as his biographer Peter Manso has noted, that he had several unacknowledged children of his own. The hypocrisy may have run deeper: Brando’s former assistant Pat Quinn claimed that “Marlon didn’t want to work again” and was hoping to get a cut of Clavell’s money. Eventually Brando dropped the case and tried to recoup the money he had spent from Barrett.

Despite this episode, Clavell enjoyed more than 40 years of marriage to his wife April. He and his family were always on the move, rarely living in one place for long. “I learned in Changi: don’t present a moving target,” he once observed.

Clavell died in 1994 aged 72, while being treated for cancer, and although he was only halfway through the proposed 12 volumes in the Asian Saga he could look back on a life in which he made the most of every minute. “He’s a good man,” Clavell’s friend, the Chinese-American actor Benson Fong, once said of him. “In fact, he’s more good than nice. He doesn’t have time to be nice.”