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Saturday 21 January 2017

Carlos the Jackass

Your movie makes me look stupid, fumes top terrorist

Published 23/10/2010 | 05:00

He was the world's most feared and famous terrorist -- a bomber, hijacker and assassin for hire who taunted the international authorities for decades.

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He murdered policemen in cold blood, launched assassination attempts in Paris, London and Berlin, and planned and executed one of the most audacious terror attacks of his time, storming an OPEC conference and escaping with dozens of high-ranking hostages in a plane.

In the 1970s, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos the Jackal, rose from obscurity to become an almost mythical agent of international unrest.

Finally tracked down in the mid-1990s by secret agents in Sudan, he's been behind the high walls of a French prison ever since. But that has only increased the public fascination with him, and now he's the subject of a major new film.

This week, Dublin's Irish Film Institute will be screening Carlos, Olivier Assayas's sprawling and controversial biopic of the legendary outlaw.

And sprawling is the word: while those pressed for time will have to content themselves with the abridged, 165-minute cut, a fuller, five-and-a-half hour version will be shown in three parts today and tomorrow.

Originally planned as a TV mini-series, Carlos caused quite a stir when released as a feature film earlier this year in France. And while it has been criticised by some for glamorising the exploits of the prototypical international terrorist, Carlos himself feels differently about it. From his prison cell, he has let it be known that he is furious with the filmmakers for portraying him as a bumbling amateur.

This new movie isn't the first to have featured him as a central character. Sanchez always had a keen eye for the theatrical, and even his nickname was inspired by books and film. He was christened 'Carlos the Jackal' by a reporter for The Guardian in the early 1970s when a copy of Frederick Forsyth's novel The Day of the Jackal was found among his possessions.

Carlos appeared as a recurring character in the spy novels of Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy, but his first screen appearance seems to have been in the 1979 Mexican film Carlos le Terrorista, a breezy thriller that played fast and loose with the facts.

After his arrest he remained an international bogeyman, popping up in the plotlines of TV thrillers and films. In the 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger action film True Lies, Bill Paxton played a mild-mannered car dealer whose life unravels when he's falsely accused of being Carlos the Jackal. In 1997 an espionage thriller called The Assignment starred Aidan Quinn as the terrorist and was based on the US government's attempts to catch Carlos.

Though essentially a remake of Fred Zinnemann's 1973 classic The Day of the Jackal, the 1997 film The Jackal was heavily inspired by the reputation of Carlos, and Bruce Willis starred as a remorseless assassin who uses disguises and subterfuge to effortlessly avoid his many pursuers.

And in Terror's Advocate, the brilliant 2007 documentary about shady international lawyer Jacques Verges, an entire chapter is devoted to Carlos and some of his more spectacular exploits.

But Assayas's film offers by far the most comprehensive screen account of his life so far. Like a lot of the so-called 'hard left' activists of the early 1970s, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez came from a privileged background. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1949, he was christened 'Ilich' by his father, a left-wing lawyer, in honour of Lenin.

Apparently radicalised from an early age, he claims to have joined Venezuela's Communist Party by the time he was 10, and to have spent a summer in his teens training at a Cuban guerrilla camp.

Whatever about all that, he came to London to study in the late 1960s after his parents' divorce, and later attended university in Paris and Moscow.

Ilich attached himself to the Palestinian cause after visiting Beirut in 1970, and subsequently joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

During what could be described as his terrorist apprenticeship in the early 1970s, Carlos (as he now liked to be called) tried and failed to kill a prominent Jewish businessman called Joseph Sieff, in London.

Back in France, he attacked several newspaper offices with car bombs, and fired rockets at El Al planes in Orly Airport. He missed.

But Carlos was growing ever bolder, and when French police cornered him during a party at a friend's flat, he showed what he was made of, shooting and killing two policemen before making good his escape.

Carlos's big moment came in 1975 when he led a PFLP attack on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna. With six armed comrades, he stormed into a meeting of oil-producing nations, killing a policeman and two members of the Iraqi and Libyan delegations.

After a tense stand-off, Austrian politicians keen to avoid a repeat of the Munich bloodbath of 1972 provided a jet to fly the terrorists and their hostages first to Algiers, then to Tripoli.

Carlos survived this coup, and teamed up with German extremists to form his own terror group, attacking targets in West Germany and France.

Eventually, the French government decided it had had enough of him, and Carlos was placed on trial in France in 1994 after being abducted from his Sudanese hideout in an early example of extraordinary rendition. All of this is lavishly recorded in Assayas's film, with Carlos being played by the dashing and imposing Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez.

Carlos, though, is not happy. He's especially irked by the depiction of his finest hour, the raid on the OPEC building, as a slightly disorganised affair. "Showing hysterical men waving submachine guns and threatening people is completely ridiculous," he has said. "These were professional commandos of a very high standard." More broadly, he has accused the film of "deliberate falsifications of history", and lawsuits have been threatened.

Carlos has written to his fellow-countryman Edgar Ramirez to upbraid him for having played him in the film, and the old warrior has apparently also demanded a share of the profits. There's no pleasing some terrorists.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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