One thing needs to be made clear about The 12th Man. It is not just ‘good for a Norwegian movie,’ it is simply a good movie from beginning to end.
Clocking in at a hefty two and a quarter hours, Harald Zwart’s version of the story of Jan Baalsrud needs to not only impress but hold an audience’s attention, and in this regard it succeeds. The 12th Man is a re-telling of the real Jan Baalsrud’s survival against the odds during World War II. A member of a twelve man sabotage team sent from the UK to Norway, they are ambushed by the Germans and all the team is captured or killed, with the exception of Jan (played here by Thomas Gullestad) who manages to escape.
The next two hours follow his attempts to make it across the border to neutral Sweden, assisted by locals along the way who risk everything to see him safely home. Pursuing him is the driven and determined Gestapo officer Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who refuses to believe that Balsruud died while trying to swim across an arctic fjord.
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Comparisons can swiftly be drawn to Leonardo DiCaprio and The Revenant, both depicting the story of one man against all the odds, but here the focus is not just on Jan but on all the people who supported and protected him. While the original telling of this story from 1957 (Nine Lives) places more focus on Jan himself, there is just as much, if not more, emphasis given here on how much Jan’s survival is down to these ordinary men and women that got him to safety.
That said, respect must be given to Jan and his absolute, stubborn refusal to die. A man who survived wandering in the wilds while snowblind; who survived an avalanche, gangrene that claimed almost all his toes, starvation, and constant, relentless freezing conditions; a man who swam the length of a fjord in below-freezing waters to escape. It is little wonder that he is something of a national hero in Norway.
Thomas Gullestad absolutely sells his performance here. Losing 15kg in weight to prepare for the role, every line of his face sells the grim determination to make it home, to never give up, to make the deaths of those other men stand for something, even if it’s only his escape. When preparing for the role, he apparently practiced looking cold in front of a mirror only to find that the preparations were entirely unnecessary when it was simply that cold during filming.
Is every minute of this movie entirely necessary to tell Jan’s story? Does it justify a 135 minute runtime? It could be argued either way. A lot of the film is dedicated to the story as told from the position of the pursuing Germans, which is something of a dramatic licence as there is no conclusive historical proof that there was a dedicated officer pursuing Jan. At the same time, the film benefits by having a clearly defined villain, and Rhys Myers is superb as the focused, driven Gestapo officer who has little time for those who simply assume that Jan died in the fjord. The scene in the bay where he is attempting to prove his point, for instance, is both horrifying and effective.
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There are also a fair few scenes of ‘man trudging through snow’ that could arguably be cut, but these allow Gullestad ample time to sell the physical condition that Baalsrud was in by this point of the story, which gives the audience more time to become sympathetic to his struggle, deepening the connection to the character
All in all, a deeply satisfying and entertaining story of survival, espionage and escape, The 12th Man is worthy of standing next to any Hollywood war movie.
Signature Entertainment presents The 12th Man on DVD today, 7 January. Check out the trailer below.