last updated: 7 January 2019 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 1058 words)
For every author, there are books that matter and authors that matter.
For me, one of those authors is Frederick Forsyth. I love all his books, but that one that really stands out for me is his first, The Day of the Jackal. It’s a great book, and the subsequent movie based on the book is equally excellent.
Both are still as readable/watchable today as they were when they were first released in the early 1970s.
If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, you should rectify that immediately. If you have read/watched, both are worth revisiting.
The Day of the Jackal is a political thriller with a simple premise: an attempt to assassinate the French President (Charles de Gaulle). The book was written in 1971, but the events of the story begin in 1962.
The desire to topple de Gaulle came from the OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète), a group former soldiers who disagreed with French government policy to grant independence to Algeria, believing that such a move did not honor the soldiers who had died fighting in the country.
The French security services had comprehensively penetrated the OAS, leaving its top command little option but to look for an outsider, unknown to French authorities, to assassinate de Gaulle. The outsider they chose is the nameless Jackal.
The Jackal undertakes detailed research (much like the author of the book) and meticulously prepares. He expects to have to change plans and is ready when each eventuality arises. While the OAS is riddled with spies and informers, ironically, the French government also has a mole feeding information to the OAS and the Jackal.
What then unfolds is—in essence—a game of cat and mouse. The French establishment, personified by Claude Lebel the detective leading the hunt, seek to stop the OAS, personified by the Jackal.
This is a proper story allowed to slowly unfold and at each turn cranking up the tension. And there is something glorious about pre-mobile phone/pre-hi-tech world in which the tale is told.
The book and the movie are approaching 50 years old and the events in the story were set nearly 60 years ago, so why has this story survived? What elevates it to something so worth reading/watching (again) today?
I’d suggest it’s a combination of factors.
First, there’s a proper story. There’s a protagonist and an antagonist, and the stakes genuinely matter. Then the characters are full-rounded and well realized. Elsewhere, I’ve written more about the central premise.
The story is also very human—it is a straightforward conflict between Lebel and the Jackal; each represents and humanizes their paymasters.
Then there is the detail. Forsyth spent time as a journalist in Paris and reported on an assassination attempt on de Gaulle.
With the detail, instead of being a police procedural, the book reads more like an “assassination procedural” on how to remove a head of state. In several instances of assassinations of heads of state, the assassin has been found to have read and been influenced by the book.
The details, based on extensive research, permeate every aspect of the story and the tale that is spun is then utterly plausible. The OAS was a real organization responsible for several terror attacks, and in reality there were several (failed) attempts on de Gaulle’s life. Everything in the book is either based on fact or is totally plausible given other assassination attempts and so there is no event or aspect within the fiction that causes the reader/viewer to question the story.
The movie compresses the book, changes some character names, and shifts a few details, but otherwise is faithful to the source material, both in substance and in style. The result is a proper, serious, grown-up movie.
One shift in the movie is a greater emphasis on the Liberation Day sequences that come toward the end of the story in the lead to the assassination attempt and the denouement. In the book, this is a comparatively short sequence—in the movie, it takes a significant proportion of the screen time. However, this additional attention works well—it adds tension and it shows the Jackal’s planning coming to fruition.
The Liberation Day sequences are also an impressive piece of filmmaking. Much of the filming took place during a real parade giving genuine authenticity.
Other adaptions of Forsyth’s novels have been variable in their quality. Some, like The Odessa File were excellent, others…. Well, let’s be kind and say they haven’t stood the test of time. This adaptation is, in my view, the best of the lot. Even if you haven’t read the novel, it’s a great film in its own right.
There are two areas where The Day of the Jackal has a continuing impact.
First, the book changed thrillers. It didn’t so much as break the mold, but rather, recast it, changing the nature of thrillers. So much of the book shouldn’t have worked, for instance:
- The subject matter—French politics—didn’t have universal appeal. And still doesn’t…
- The outcome of the story was already known (de Gaulle died of natural causes the year before publication of the book).
- The story was told in a comparatively slow manner, with a terse journalistic style, and a lack of obvious set piece spectacular action sequences.
It shouldn’t have worked…but it did, and after publication/release of the film, many have taken the style as a template.
Second, the book led (eventually) to a change in British law.
The book explains what became known as the Day of the Jackal Fraud. When the Jackal obtains a fake British passport, he does so by obtaining the birth certificate of a dead child who—had the child lived—would have been around the same age as the Jackal. Using the genuine birth certificate—but for a dead child—the Jackal then applies for a passport in the name of that individual.
The ruse Forsyth discovered while talking to a forger as part of his research, was that passport applications where not checked against death records.
The book brought the fraud to public consciousness and criminals took advantage of the facility. It took the government a while—the book was published in 1971 but it wasn’t until the 2000s, that the government moved to close the loophole. Whether they have succeeded is another matter… Maybe someone else will highlight how the fraud can now be executed.