In 2018, Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, like millions worldwide, watched the media coverage of the 18-day search-and-rescue operation to save 12 members of a Thai junior football team and their coach who were trapped deep in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system amid rising flood water.
"The headlines do sort of offer up a great movie story," the 68-year-old famed director told The Christian Post. "I thought there was great drama in that great suspense and that I can make a real movie movie out of the adventure side of it."
Several years after that harrowing event, Howard was pitched a screenplay of the story — and was fascinated by the human interest aspect of it; the volunteerism of the Thai people, the bravery of the divers who rescued the team and the spirituality that gave both the soccer team and their parents peace throughout the ordeal.
"That was an important element that I didn't know very much about, but I felt it was emotional and very, very beautiful and cinematic, and completely true," Howard said.
So when bringing the story to the big screen, the "Beautiful Mind" director took great care not only to tell it accurately but to capture as much detail as possible to honor the rescuers and impress on audiences just how extraordinary and complex the operation truly was.
And true to the timeline of events, Howard's latest film, "Thirteen Lives," opens on June 23, 2018, when the boys on the Wild Boars soccer team, ranging in age from 11 to 16, became stranded in treacherous caves during a monsoon that arrived with no warning.
When it becomes clear that rescue efforts will take more than just locals, British armed services veterans are enlisted to help: Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), a 60-year-old retired diver; his partner, John Volanthen (Colin Farrell); Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgarton), a diver and anesthetist; and Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), who comes up with a risky plan to rescue the team.
In total, 17 Navy SEALs were enlisted for the endeavor. Though divers successfully rescued all 13, one Thai diver died and another succumbed a year later to a blood infection.
Trapped in the cave for more than a week with low oxygen and limited food and water, the boys were weak and didn't know how to dive, complicating the rescue process.
Shot on location in Thailand and Australia, filmmakers capture the tight passages of the cave system — some as small as 3 feet wide and 2 feet tall — the treacherous currents and murky water that posed a risk to the divers attempting to pull the boys to safety.
Bateman said it was challenging bringing the claustrophobic underwater scenes to life. Before shooting began, he recalled Howard told him, "This is going to be a tough shoot; working underwater is going to be slow, it's going to be risky. We will [be] kept very, very safe, but it's like high stakes. It's really difficult to film there."
Bateman and the other actors underwent exhaustive training to bring their characters to life, giving him tremendous respect for the real-life divers behind the rescue.
"I never once felt like I wasn't being looked after we got trained by some of the most amazing people, but it was really difficult," the actor said. "We were trying to emulate something that no one else really on the planet can do other than this small group of amazing men. … We were just so lucky we were so supported … we were in the best hands possible, but it was a challenge."
Howard ensures viewers connect emotionally with all involved in the rescue.
The film shows how, for Volanthen, the rescue was somewhat personal because he had a son close to the missing boys' age.
Still, Farrell said that when bringing his character to the big screen, though it was necessary to show "certain psychological and emotional things and concerns and worries" the diver experienced, he wanted to highlight Volanthen's professionalism and dedication to rescue efforts.
"There's a sense of measure to these men; it's not that they don't feel as deeply as you or I or anyone else who's screaming, crying, laughing, but there's a sense of balance and control to them. That allows them to do what they do and to have achieved what they achieved throughout the 17 days of the rescue. That was astonishing. It was really about servicing the event," he said.
Outside the cave, authorities grapple with the political issues underlying the boys' rescue. Three soccer team members and their 25-year-old assistant coach were stateless, meaning they lived in Thailand without the same rights as citizens. Meanwhile, the governor of the area, Narongsak Osottanakorn (Sahajak Boonthanakit), is tasked with communicating with the frenzied public.
But the film focuses more intently on the bravery and collaboration of the children's families and locals. Knowing that their crops — their only source of income — will be destroyed, locals give authorities permission to divert water onto rice paddies, helping save lives. Meanwhile, the children's parents and family members pray tirelessly for the safety of the children and the divers.
"The only way [parents] could help their kids was to apply their spirituality in this way, because otherwise … it was like 18 days of their kids being in an operating room, and all they could do is be in the waiting room," Howard said.
Religion is also heavily featured within the cave. The boys practice meditation as they wait for rescue. Though most of the boys and their families practiced a form of animism, one athlete, Adul "Adun" Samon, was a devout Christian.
The film captures the pivotal moment when, after nine days of search, Stanton and Volanthen watch as the boys slowly emerge from around a dark corner of the cave.
"How many of you?" shouted Volanthen. "Thirteen?"
"Thirteen," confirmed Adul.
Adul later shared how his faith sustained him during the harrowing experience, stressing that "help came from God during the hardest time."
Raymond Phathanavirangoon, who co-produced the film, told CP that it was essential to filmmakers that Adul's Christian faith was highlighted.
"We made sure that — actually, even in our notes — that he's Christian, so he's a little bit different from the others," Phathanavirangoon said. "So even though he's meditating with the others, we've always known, because his parents also had to be Christian, you don't notice the details, but there was a cross on one of the parents. … We really, really made sure that level of accuracy when we're making the film, because it's based on the real kids."
Farrell said the faith and collaboration of the Thai people impacted the rescue and the morale of all involved.
"I always felt that I was close to my fellow actors and the other characters, and there was so much in observing the type [of] people … and being moved by their resilience, and by their faith and by their prayer … all these extensions of faith and extensions of goodwill in the midst of this panic," he said. "I wasn't willing anything into being or trying to impose my will upon the scene or anything; I was just kind of gently responding to all the beautiful things that were happening around me."
For Howard, the Thai cave rescue is more than a tale of victory over odds; it's a story of heroism, faith, and, most incredibly, global collaboration.
When speaking to some of the real-life Western divers behind the rescue, Howard said they reflected on the spiritual impact of the event.
"Some of them said to me that by the time it was over, they had sensed the sort of the spiritual atmosphere, and kind of the impact of that energy on everybody and possibly even the outcome," he said.
"Thirteen Lives" is rated PG-13 for some strong language and unsettling images. The film opened in theaters on July 29 and begins streaming on Amazon Prime on Aug. 5.
Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org