Fact vs Fiction: Thirteen Lives — Is Thirteen Lives a true story? What really happened?

Joel Edgerton, Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives
Thirteen Lives tells the story of the infamous Thai cave rescue from 2018. (Image credit: Vince Valitutti/MGM)

Ron Howard's new film Thirteen Lives is based upon 2018's extraordinary Thai cave rescue. Although it made headlines around the world, few know the detail of what really went on during the 18 days that 12 Thai boys and their football coach were trapped deep in a complex cave system in the country’s Chiang Rai province.

Now director Ron Howard has turned this gripping true story into Thirteen Lives, an action-packed drama starring Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton and Tom Bateman as some of the real-life heroic cave rescuers who battled through murky waters, narrow passages and deadly currents to rescue the boys against impossible odds.

The gripping true tale is now in cinemas and launches on Prime Video a week later on Friday 5 August. But how much of Thirteen Lives really happened? Here’s everything you need to know…

Is Thirteen Lives a true story? 

Yes. On 23 June 2018, 12 members of an amateur Thai football team, known as the Wild Boars, and their assistant coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, decided to go on an adventure into the local Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand after practice.

Shortly afterwards, unexpected heavy rains flooded the cave system, trapping the boys deep within as the waters began to rise. What followed was a complicated international rescue to save all 13 lives before the oxygen ran out in the cave and further rains fell. 

In the end, the boys — who could barely swim and had no diving experience — were sedated and then swum out one by one to safety by a team of rescue divers. The idea was to stop them from panicking during the dangerous dive and risking both their lives and the lives of their rescuers.

How many boys were involved in the Thai cave rescue? 

There were 12 boys, aged 11 to 16, trapped in the cave as well as their 25-year-old assistant coach Ekkapol Chantawong. The boys left their bikes and backpacks at the cave entrance before exploring the underground tunnels.

When the flash flood hit, they found themselves trapped on a narrow ledge deep inside. During their ordeal, Chantawong kept the terrified boys calm by teaching them how to meditate. 

Fearing the worst, they also took turns to try to digging at the cave walls with their bare hands in a desperate attempt to escape.

Thirteen Lives poster

The poster for Thirteen Lives. (Image credit: MGM)

How long were the kids trapped in the Thai cave? 

It took nine days before two British divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen (played in the film by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell) made contact with the exhausted boys and found them huddled together in darkness on a ledge. 

After their discovery, a team of experienced divers brought them supplies, including food, survival blankets and torches, while a rescue plan was formulated.

The first eight boys were then brought out of the cave on Sunday 9 July after 17 days underground. The rest were swum to safety the following day.

How many divers took part in the Thai cave rescue? 

The film focuses on five rescue divers: British volunteers John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman) and Jason Mallinson (Paul Gleeson), and Australian diver Richard ‘Harry’ Harris (Joel Edgerton).

However, the rescue was actually a multinational effort involving around 1000 people from all over the world, including Royal Thai Navy SEALs and US Special Forces. Tragically, Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan drowned while placing oxygen tanks along a potential escape route.

"So much was at stake and the way people came together and navigated that was incredibly inspiring," says Ron Howard. "It was a really emotional, riveting and tremendously challenging experience to make the movie. I felt gifted by the opportunity."

Thai Cave diver Chris Jewell poses with The Queen's Gallantry Medal which her received for his part in the Tham Luand Nag Non cave rescue

Many of the divers such as Chris Jewell (pictured) received honors for their part in the rescue (Image credit: JONATHAN BRADY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

How deep was the Thai cave rescue?

The group was discovered around 4 km or 2.5 miles inside the cave, around 800 to 1000 meters below the top of the mountain. 

It took the experienced divers around six hours to reach them — an 11 to 12-hour round trip — and the route had several flooded sections and some extremely narrow parts, the smallest measuring only 38 by 72 centimeters.

The cave complex has since been revamped as a tourist destination, with thousands of visitors from around the world descending on the site to get a glimpse of the site of the rescue mission.

What happened to the boys rescued from the cave? 

At the end of the movie, the 12 boys are shown smiling from their hospital beds as their families wave at them from behind a glass door. 

In reality, they spent several days in isolation in a Chiang Rai hospital as doctors determined whether they’d caught any infectious diseases. They also wore sunglasses as a precaution while their eyes adjusted to daylight and they ate rice porridge to build up the weight they’d lost.

The boys were released form hospital on 18 July 2008 and became semi-celebrities, appearing on The Ellen Show that October and playing a friendly football match at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. Three of the boys and their assistant coach, who were previously stateless, were also granted Thai citizenship after the ordeal.

Thirteen Lives hits select theaters on Friday, July 29 before releasing on Prime Video on Friday, August 5.

Hannah Davies

Hannah has been writing about TV for national newspapers and magazines ever since the 1990s when she covered the soaps for Woman magazine — and she still prides herself on rarely having missed an episode of EastEnders. Since then she’s written for various publications, including What To Watch, TV Times, What’s On TV, TV & Satellite Week, Woman & Home, Psychologies and Good Housekeeping

Apart from EastEnders, her other favorite shows include Succession, Unforgotten, Line of Duty, Motherland and anything by Russell T Davies. When Hannah isn’t watching or writing about telly, you’re likely to find her enjoying London’s latest theatre shows, taking her campervan on a wet UK holiday or embarrassing her teenage kids.