Thirteen Lives recreates terror and hope of Thailand cave rescue
The film adaptation of the remarkable true story launches on Amazon Prime Video today.
This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
Cast your mind back to June 2018. The World Cup was on in Russia and England were about to fall short (again). But then all eyes turned to a rather lesser-known football team: the Wild Boars. Twelve boys and their soccer coach were exploring a cave system in northern Thailand that suddenly, without warning, became flooded. With monsoon rains threatening to fatally cut them off, a daring rescue operation was launched. Miraculously, after nearly three weeks stranded, all survived.
“As a kind of relentless – though pragmatic – optimist, I found in this story a great lesson,” says director Ron Howard, whose exhilarating movie retelling, Thirteen Lives, is available this week. “It is proof that these kinds of outcomes are viable.”
Certainly, it’s a story tailor-made for the genial Howard, 68, who has experience directing aquatic tales (Splash, Cocoon, In the Heart of the Sea) and survival epics (Apollo 13). “This was so different because of the cave,” he remarks today, in a thankfully air-conned London hotel mid-heatwave.
Sections of the Tham Luang cave were rebuilt in giant water tanks, when shooting took place in Queensland, Australia, last year. In their quest for authenticity, the actors - Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton and Tom Bateman play the divers – also demanded to do the underwater scenes without stunt doubles, “[which] I thought was utterly impractical!” laughs Howard.
British actor Bateman, known for playing the lead in TV drama Beecham House, was taken aback by how “horribly claustrophobic” it was to dive (and act) in these mock-up caves. He recalls one scene, where his character, rescue diver Chris Jewell, gets into trouble underwater. “I remember Ron saying, ‘Man, that was great. The fear in your eyes was so good.’ And I said, ‘That was all real. There was no acting in there.’ I was genuinely thinking: ‘This is terrifying!’”
Indeed, these were no jolly scuba dives gazing at tropical fish, but learning how to negotiate tight, muddy passageways, carrying bulky equipment in bad visibility. “I’m usually on top of the water – surfing or swimming. I didn’t have a lot of cave diving experience,” says Edgerton, the Australian-born actor recently seen reprising Owen Lars in Star Wars spin-off TV show Obi-Wan Kenobi, who plays Dr Richard ‘Harry’ Harris, an anaesthetist and fellow cave diver. “There were definitely moments where I was reminded of how difficult a challenge it is for these guys to do what they do. And we’re in a safe environment… able at any given point to surface and get a latte!”
“I wasn’t confident that they were alive when we arrived,” admits Rick Stanton, one of the four real-life divers, who alongside Harris and Jewell, was instrumental to the rescue. Stanton, who was awarded the George Medal for his actions, credits the Thai boys’ football coach for keeping the kids’ spirits up, even teaching them to meditate, as the divers began the torturous and highly risky process of extracting them one by one.
“Imagine any western children surviving nine days without food, pretty much in the dark,” he notes. “I’ve spoken to Thai people, and they say, ‘Even Thai kids from Bangkok wouldn’t do it.’” It was their more frugal existence, living in Chiang Mai Province, that “enabled their survival”.
Played in the film by Lord of the Rings star Mortensen, Stanton recalls how Mortensen spent hours with him over Zoom studying his accent and mannerisms. “It wasn’t obvious until I saw him on set and thought, ‘He’s picked that up off me!’”
Amusingly, Stanton’s friend and fellow diver John Volanthen, had never even heard of Colin Farrell until he learned that the Irish star of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was going to play him. “These guys are busy!” laughs Howard, defending him. “They don’t flip on the TV and keep it going all day…they have other things to think about!” Stanton nods in agreement. “We’re not real big cinemagoers!” Maybe not. But now they’re all movie stars.
Thirteen Lives is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video – sign up to Amazon Prime Video for a 30-day free trial here. If you’re looking for something else to watch tonight, check out our TV Guide or visit our Movies hub for all the latest news.