What Is The True Story Behind Thirteen Lives & How Accurate Is It?

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Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives depicts the true story the 2018 Tham Luang Nang Non cave rescue in Thailand, but viewers may wonder how accurate the events are as portrayed in the movie. Ron Howard’s movies include such prominent and gripping historical dramas as Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, and A Beautiful Mind, which is why it’s no surprise that he has also helmed Hollywood’s version of the greatest rescue story in years. Notably, Thirteen Lives has been met with mostly praise, which is a testament to the movie’s authenticity and overall faithfulness to the true story.

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As revealed in interviews, Ron Howard consulted with Richard Stanton and the other real-life heroes who conducted the rescue in order to ensure the accuracy of the technical cave diving scenes, which were shot over several grueling months. In Thirteen Lives, Stanton is played by Viggo Mortensen, who insisted on performing the stunts himself — a level of dedication shared by his co-stars. Colin Farrell, who plays John Volanthen, even hid his bouts with panic from Howard in order that he could continue doing stunt work. As Mortensen explains in his Thirteen Lives interview with Screen Rant:

Most people don’t know exactly how they did it, and that’s a lot of what the movie’s about. Not just in the cave; what the divers did, but what all the Thai people did on the mountain. Just hundreds, thousands of people.

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Thirteen Lives goes beyond the efforts of the British cave divers and the Thai Navy to rescue 12 boys and their assistant coach, revealing everything that got lost in the headlines. Though most of the filming took place in Australia due to COVID restrictions, many recognizable scenes were actually shot in Thailand, and the Thirteen Lives crew was also composed of mainly Thai actors and production staff. There’s no question that Ron Howard and the rest of the crew took the utmost care in interpreting such a sensitive story that almost resulted in the deaths of a dozen Thai kids. As praised in Screen Rant’s review of Thirteen Lives, the result is a detailed and accurate retelling of events that succeeds at being truly gripping, despite the fact that audiences already know the boys make it out alive.

Thirteen Lives True Story Revealed

Is Thirteen Lives a true story?

In 2018, a junior football team of 12 boys and their assistant coach went to explore Tham Luang cave as they’d done many times before. But bad weather resulted in flooding, which blocked their way out. When a parent of one of the boys reported him missing, local authorities organized a search-and-rescue mission. Vernon Unsworth (played by Lewis Fitz-Gerald in Thirteen Lives), a British caver who lived in Thailand and had previously mapped the Tham Luang Nang Non cave network, recommended contacting Richard Stanton and John Volanten to help in the rescue efforts of Thai Navy SEALS. After the story was picked up by global media, nearly 10,000 volunteers from 17 countries offered their help at the scene. Thirteen Lives actor Sahajak Poo Boonthankit, who plays Governor Narongsak, details in his Screen Rant interview that he was in Thailand when the real incident transpired. He explains that this international volunteerism was inspired by the sense of community that rallied around the boys and their families:

At first, I was actually angry at the boys. “Why did they even go in there? What drove you? What took you in there?” And then, you found out, “Okay, they didn’t intend to go in when it was raining. It rained after they went in.” Okay. Five days, six days go on. I’m saying, “Okay, maybe they’re dead.” And now, being Thai, you start to sit in front of your mantle and you pray. You light your [prayer sticks] and everything and hope that they come out well and alive.

As diving teams worked at a solution below, Thai water engineer Thanet Natisri (played by Nophand Boonyai in Thirteen Lives) worked on the mountains above, aided by local volunteers in diverting water away from the caves. However, this came with its own complications involving the farms that surrounded the Tham Luang Nang Non caves, which were already getting bombarded by increasingly heavy rainfall. For the film’s director, this was a crucial moment that needed to be shown in the film, as revealed by Ron Howard in his Screen Rant interview for Thirteen Lives:

I didn’t realize that, on that last day, they were literally battling the weather. I didn’t know anything about the other sacrifices. I didn’t know that, in order to divert the water from the mountain, it meant that the rice farmers had to sacrifice their crops.

On the 10th day, Stanton and Volanthen discovered the entire football team alive four kilometers from the mouth of the cave. The divers’ footage of the boys in the cave went viral soon after it was posted on the Thai Navy SEALs’ Facebook page, and it actually inspired the dialogue in a scene in Thirteen Lives. The boys kept themselves calm through meditation — taught to them by their assistant coach, who was defended by the boys and their families from facing criminal charges after the rescue. Led by anesthetist Harry Harris (played by Joel Edgerton in the movie), 18 rescue divers succeeded in keeping the entire football team unconscious using ketamine and then taking them out of the caves’ narrow flooded passages one-by-one over three days.

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While Thirteen Lives is not a documentary, like 2021’s The Rescue, it’s a proper tribute to what really happened. In fact, Ron Howard dedicated the movie to the sole casualties of the incident: Saman Kunan (played by Sukollawat Kanarot) and Beirut Pakbara. Right before the rescue took place, Kunan lost consciousness underwater and died while delivering air tanks. Pakbara died a year later due to a blood infection contracted during the rescue efforts.

Everything Thirteen Lives Changed About The Real Events

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Thirteen Lives, according to Richard Stanton, accurately captures everything related to the Thai cave rescue — except for the underwater scenes. In reality, Stanton and the other divers could barely see underwater, but this was clearly changed for the movie to allow audiences to see the action. Another notable change is how Thirteen Lives shows the vigil at the mouth of Tham Luang cave happening on the ninth day when it actually started on the second day, after the boys’ fresh tracks were discovered.

Thirteen Lives also doesn’t mention controversial billionaire Elon Musk, whose comments during the incident led to a defamation lawsuit with Vernon Unsworth. And though Saman Kunan died on the 14th day of the mission, the movie depicts it happening on the 15th day instead, 24 hours before the actual rescue. All things considered, none of these changes actually take anything away from the story’s authenticity, except maybe for the fact that Beirut Pakbara is not depicted in the film. That said, Ron Howard dedicating Thirteen Lives to both Kunan and Pakbara is a proper acknowledgment of the sacrifice they made to ensure that the boys returned home.