In 1943, the Nazis had invaded Norway and occupied it, with the help of some collaborators though there were many more who were horrified their country was now under enemy control. The Allied forces were keen to sabotage the Germans in Scandinavia, and provided Norwegian soldiers in exile with missions to do precisely that, including one which ended swiftly in disaster as all twelve of the soldiers were shot or captured. Well, almost all twelve: one man got away, Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) and began an incredible journey through the ice and snow to reach neutral Sweden and freedom, though he did not get to where he ended up alone: he had plenty of help.
The 12th Man was a Norwegian film itself, a tale of a true-life war hero that you get the impression was made for those who were familiar with the facts more than the foreigners who may not get the same resonance from it. That was presumably why we begin the film in Scotland where Baalstrud has survived and is about to pass on the top secret information to the British authorities, then flash back to a few weeks before, when we were offered the aftermath of the twelve men's boat being blown up and the Nazis firing upon them. Not that he escapes unscathed, as practically from the off he has his big toe shot off in a hail of bullets, leaving him with a limp for the rest of the plot.
That became a running theme, yes, Baalstrud was lucky to be alive and engaged in some impressive escapes, but it always came at a terrible price, and his body was near-constantly prey to various ailments and conditions that at any moment could kill him just as easily as an enemy bullet. Rapper Gullestad was not laboured with too much character work to flesh out the protagonist, he was mostly there as a presence to be punished and respected, so even his dialogue was not too extensive. He was not completely silent or anything, but director Harald Zwart presented him in the most pared down, basic terms possible, so we could concentrate on his remarkable achievements.
That said, the real Baalstrud was notably modest about being a war hero, claiming the real heroes were those who helped him get through his ordeal, the best of the ordinary Norwegian people since they did not buckle under oppression, but were brave enough to strike back in the best way they could while still being aware the lives of their loved ones, not to mention their own, were in danger if they chose to assist any rebellion. The 12th Man, or Den 12. Mann as it was called originally, was part of the endurance genre of filmmaking, though not because they were an endurance test to sit through, albeit they aimed to be harrowing in places, all the better to make their lead characters look more laudable for getting through their adventure. You could possibly trace this back to Cornel Wilde's trendsetter The Naked Prey back in the sixties.
Though Wilde had to wait a few years before the survival through gruelling conditions genre really became a "thing", with occasional drop ins like Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse or even the nonsense of Cannibal Ferox. The difference here was the Second World War setting, so no bloodthirsty natives hunting the man down, and not as in Tracks where Mia Wasikowska's test of mettle was entirely self-created, an alternative variant, here the Nazis served as the threat and Jonathan Rhys Meyers was the Gestapo man Kurt Stage dead set on stopping Baalstrud, as you can imagine a ruthless pursuer who has no qualms about using torture and even murder to get his way. That he does not, ultimately, get his way provided some satisfaction though Swart's insistence on having the audience feel every trudging step through the snow did go against how enjoyable this was to watch. It was the fact that people can decide, no, I'm not going to participate and support evil in my land that generated the final cheering flourish, though we were never in any doubt that even good has consequences. Music by Christophe Beck.