Is Thirteen Lives a true story and how accurate is it?
Ron Howardit is Thirteen Lives is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It’s a story almost too extraordinary to be true, but it’s a very accurate dramatization of the Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand in 2018. After a training session, a junior football team entered the system of Tham Luang Nang Non caves. A total of twelve boys between the ages of eleven and sixteen and the team’s assistant coach were exploring the cave before bad weather conditions caused the cave to flood and block their exit. They became trapped, and after a relative of one of the boys reported that he had not come home, a rescue operation was organised. The rescue gripped the world and saw a team of almost 10,000 volunteers from seventeen different countries help. At the forefront of the film are the acting talents of Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farreland Joel Edgerton who all underlined the difficulties of making this film. It’s an important story to tell though, and the end product is as gripping as it is heartfelt.
There was great cause for concern when the boys’ clothes, shoes and bicycles were discovered just outside the cave entrance. With no sign of them, the fear that they were trapped inside began to grow. One of the first important figures on the scene was a British speleologist Vernon Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) who lived in Thailand and was familiar with the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system. His quick response and expert advice to the Thai government and authorities are described at the beginning of the film. Unsworth had spent time in the cave and mapped out the cave system knowing the narrowest corners and largest chambers. It was he who recommended contacting experienced cave divers Richard Stanon (Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Farrel). During the first two days, Thai Navy SEAL divers were called in, further flooding blocked vital areas and water pumps were used to pump liters of water.
As the dive crews worked at the mouth of the cave, the film also focuses on what happened above the mountain with the locals and people of Illinois. Thanet Natisri, a Thai groundwater engineer. His efforts along with local volunteers helped divert the water, although this came at a cost to local farmers. In a touching scene from the film based on the actual sacrifices made for the rescue, local farmers agree to the idea of water being diverted to their crops and fields to increase the boys’ chances of survival. Following the successful rescue, the farmers were all compensated for the loss of their crops.
Further showers and poor visibility would make the rescue mission even more difficult. Other teams of divers from around the world arrived to help with the search. In the film, a vigil takes place on the ninth day when in fact it took place on the second day when the boys’ hand and footprints were discovered outside the cave. Due to the vastness of the cave system and the continued bad weather conditions, many members of the rescue team became trapped and the divers also had to rescue them. As the film faithfully shows, they had to plunge them into tight spaces and against strong currents. Chamber 3 of the cave system was used as a base of operations where essential supplies were kept.
Miraculously, Stanton and Volanthen discovered the team on day ten of the rescue mission. They were in total darkness, 4 kilometers from the mouth of the cave, the path to them completely flooded, but all thirteen were alive. The Thai Navy SEALs posted a video clip of Stanton and Volanthen discovering the team on their Facebook page, and millions of stunned viewers around the world saw it. The British divers could only communicate with one of the boys as he was the only one who spoke English. Much of the dialogue in this scene of the film is taken directly from the famous music video. In Thirteen Lives, there’s a truly magnificent moment in which the boys’ coach begins to break down and apologize for leading the boys into the cave, but the boys all jump to his defense. The coach, who trained as a Buddhist monk for 10 years, kept the boys calm and taught them to meditate to give them hope. After the rescue, there was discussion about whether the trainer should face criminal charges. The boys themselves and their parents fiercely defended him, however, and he is hailed as a hero by many.
News of their discovery was greeted with joy and relief by the boys’ parents and rescuers, but there was still an incredibly difficult challenge to overcome to get them all out safely. As the rescue plan was developed, vital supplies were brought to the boys, including blankets, food and flashlights. A doctor was also sent to check everyone, and it was found that the oxygen levels were worrying. Anesthetist Richard “Harry” Harris (Edgerton) was contacted when the possibility of sedating each boy before diving them became an option. However, tragedy struck before the rescue began when Saman Kunan, a Thai volunteer diver and former Navy SEAL died while attempting to deliver air tanks. He lost consciousness underwater and could not be revived.
In the movie, he removes his air tank after he gets stuck and tragically loses too much oxygen after getting stuck in a narrow cave passage. This heartbreaking moment actually happened on the fourteenth day of the mission, but in the film it happens on the fifteenth day, just twenty-four hours before the boys begin to be rescued. This change of days was probably for dramatic purposes to show the immense danger that was still likely even the day before the boys were to be rescued from the cave. Howard dedicated the film to Kunan, as well as Beirut Pakbara died a year later of a blood infection contracted during the rescue. Pakbara is not represented in the film.
The plan to put the boys to sleep and get them out was risky. There were huge concerns about the safety of getting the twelve boys and their coach out without any fatalities. If either of them were to wake up underwater, drowning was a strong possibility. The decision was made to keep the media and anyone not involved in the operation away from the cave. Due to the lack of media coverage at this point, it is not concretely known what happened. Although later reports revealed that the boys had been given doses of ketamine in order to keep them unconscious. The boys were given all the necessary equipment to complete their journey to freedom, and a team of eighteen rescue divers headed out to finally bring them home.
Thirteen Lives shows Harris providing sedation while Stanton, Volanthen, Chris Jewell (tom batman), and Jason Mallinson (Paul Glenon) led the dive team to retrieve the boys. Each diver was assigned a boy to accompany him in the cave until he exited. The actual rescue sequence in the film is nearly an hour long and is a truly compelling and engrossing watch, even for those familiar with the story. There are jaw-dropping moments in which the boys stop breathing, but the uplifting scenes that follow the rescue are nothing short of amazing. Four boys were taken out for three days and their trainer was also successfully picked up on the third day. Amidst all the delight and relief, Harris is informed that his father has died – something that actually happened, but wasn’t told until later – casting a bittersweet shadow over the joy. These events are faithful to what happened in real life on the day of the rescue.
Howard ensured that the film was realistic and respectful. Much of it is in Thai not only to respect the culture, but also to stay true to the situation. After the rescue, the boys were all quarantined and initially could only see their parents and loved ones behind glass – which is the final shot of the film. They were each described as being in good condition with only minor injuries. Due to the worldwide attention the story had garnered, the team and its coach received many celebrity gifts, and many members of the rescue team received awards for bravery.
It’s an amazing story that Howard successfully dramatizes. The film, however, leaves out the involvement of Elon Musk who came up with ideas on how to get the boys out. Musk actually had a spat with Unsworth, which led to Unsworth suing him for defamation. This whole aspect is wisely omitted from the film, with Howard making sure the focus is on the rescue as it unfolds. Given the number of people involved, it’s no surprise that many of the heroic members of the rescue team aren’t in the movie, but Howard still pays homage to them by doing Thirteen Lives a moving survival drama that captures the emotion and power of an incredible story.