Fifty years ago, an assassin appeared who, unlike Bonds and Bournes, was strong and silent

The closest anyone came to assassinating Charles de Gaulle was an Englishman in Frederick Forsyth‘s The Day of the Jackal. He barely missed and only because the French president bent down to kiss a veteran on his cheeks, a Gallic gesture few Anglo-Saxons could anticipate.

Like JFK or James Dean, you can’t imagine an old Jackal. There’s something pathetic about Forsyth’s assassin prowling around his London flat, living with the desperate anguish of unaccustomed failure, his reputation in the hard-eyed marksmen’s world in tatters. A Jackal, haggling with the leaders of the OAS (Organisation Armee Secrete, the far-right terrorist group in the early 1960s) who commissioned him to kill De Gaulle, about returning the handsome advance, a Jackal looking for another job – what a messy end to a wonderful plot.

Published in the summer of 1971, Frederick Forsyth’s iconic novel, The Day of the Jackal, turned 50 this year. The book opens with an accurate description of an assassination plot on De Gaulle that actually happened in 1962, but what follows is suave, sniper-sight fiction. The Fred Zinnemann film adaptation that followed in 1973, with Edward Fox as The Jackal and Michael Lonsdale as France’s Hercule Poirot – and Holmes to The Jackal’s Moriarty – detective Claude Lebel, went on to being ranked by the British Film Institute as the ’74th greatest British film of the 20th century’ in 1999. But it was much more than that.

With the Jackal buried in an unmarked grave in a Paris cemetery – visited only by Lebel, his ultimate vanquisher – there would be little chance of Jason Bourne-type sequels. What of a prequel though? Perhaps with Cubans, the KGB and the mafia? Was the Jackal at the Grassy Knoll in Dallas at 12.30 pm that day?

Forsyth’s young Jackal dreamt of a better life, pressing ‘his nose to the travel agent’s window,’ gazing at the posters, ‘another life, another world, far from the drudgery of the commuter train and the forms in triplicate, the paper clips and tepid tea.’ Not the purposeful dream of a future 007 who was briefly an Etonian, and for whom the privilege of summering in the French Riviera is a given. The Jackal’s first Lee-Enfield was courtesy National Service – post-World War 2 British peacetime conscription – and his weapons training instructors murmuring, ‘Lad’s a natural,’ fast-tracked him to the sniper variant, leaving him at the range.

Too young to fight Hitler, he missed being Zaitsev, the hero of Stalingrad (Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates). But there were colonial firestorms in Aden and Malaya, and in 1960, a slaughterhouse called Katanga in the Belgian Congo. Before hiring him for the presidential kill, the uneasy OAS chief, Colonel Marc Rodin, realised that ‘whatever thoughts did go on behind the smokescreen nothing came through’.

Truly, the Man With No Name – the British Police believes him to be Charles Calthrop, a former arms salesman, until the real Calthrop appears after the death of The Jackal – he’s meticulous, buying clothes in Copenhagen, just for the labels, to stitch on to the clerical shirt, dog collar and black bib bought in London. If he’s going to be a Danish pastor, he’ll have to be immaculate.

To meet a gunsmith, the Jackal arrives early and waits in a park, behind a newspaper, to ensure he isn’t followed or the house isn’t under surveillance. When he ditches his Alfa Romeo in the woods late at night, covering the car with rhododendron branches, he smears the white cut stumps of the nearby bushes with earth. Walking away, he goes back ‘over his tracks with a branch, sweeping away the light impressions made in the moss and twigs by the passage of the Alfa.’ He’s a bit of a Gatsby, our Jackal: modest beginnings, rigorous military training, a murky past and if there’s no Long Island mansion, the Banque de France keys are – were and forever will be – a mercury-tipped bullet away.


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