Recently, I watched the 1957 film 12 angry men starring Henry Fonda and Lee J Cobb.According to the blurb on the back of the DVD, it is “one of the best pictures ever made.”It depicts twelve jurors trying to reach a verdict after having listened to the trial of an eighteen-year old boy accused of killing his father. Eleven jurors believe the boy is guilty; one is not convinced. So they enter into debate about the evidence presented.

At level one the film is about whether the boy is guilty or not and whether one man can change the conviction of the other eleven men who have no doubt that the boy is guilty.In re-examining the evidence, they discover that what they have accepted as true has depended entirely on the way in which the evidence has been presented.The one juror, Davis, we discover his name at the end of the film, presents alternative interpretations to every fact that has been presented in the trial. And the jurors discover that they have accepted as true what only seems to be true.

That brings us to level two of the film’s meaning. As the jurors re-examine the evidence it becomes clear that it is their attitudes as well as the attitudes of the defence and prosecution lawyers and the judge that have influenced their decision. Each juror is forced to confront his own beliefs and the conventions that have prejudiced him in deciding this case. Prejudice is most powerfully demonstrated in the attitude of the character played by Lee J. Cobb; his own unhappy relationship with his son has warped his ability to judge objectively.

As these jurors are in search of the truth, we come to a third level of the film’s meaning and that is summed up in the question, “What is truth?”Is it what we believe? The film shows us men who make a decision based on one interpretation of the facts and then change their minds when presented with another. So is truth simply the way we interpret happenings or is there absolute truth? When the film begins we see eleven men who view parricide as totally evil and it is this attitude that is applied to the accused. It is a belief in absolute truth but truth is shown to be relative.

Finally, we are made to consider the meaning of the absolute and the relative in our lives. This is the fourth level of the film. We base our lives on what we accept as absolute truths; such as the commandment; Thou shalt not kill. We need to have such beliefs by which we order our lives or we live in chaos. But we have to understand that we take truth to be absolute for pragmatic reasons. Truth, however, is only what we believe. And what we believe changes with circumstances. For the most part, our beliefs give order to our lives; but we have to be aware that when we make decisions we have reduced all possibilities to one or a few. In important matters, such as the taking of life, we cannot rely on simple beliefs; we need to consider actions in all the complexity of their contexts. We can only do so if we understand that truth is relative. Our beliefs are a way to structure our lives; but we must be prepared to question them because they are not absolute.

For once I agree with the blurb; 12 angry men is “one of the best pictures ever made.”