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 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.
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. (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) and was postponed. It lingered on for a number of years before being finally cancelled when James T. Aubrey took over as president and cancelled the project.
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. 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. 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.
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." For a time Sean Connery was mooted as star for director Martin Ritt. "I've always wanted Sean to do it," said Clavell.
Vuille eventually lost the rights and Fraser's script was not used in the final movie.
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. He set up the film with Orion. Sean Connery turned down the lead role.
The movie 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. De Laurentiis later claimed filming in China was a big mistake.
The movie gained poor reviews. Chen was nominated for two Golden Raspberry Award as Worst Actress and Worst New Star.
The movie was not a box office success.
"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."