Fact checking 'Thirteen Lives': Were the boys really drugged during the Thai cave rescue?

Patrick Ryan

Spoiler alert! This post details important plot points of the new Amazon movie "Thirteen Lives" and the real-life events it's based on. 

Ron Howard is back with another true survival story. 

In "Thirteen Lives" (in theaters now and streaming on Amazon Prime), the "Apollo 13" director follows British diving experts Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), who with an international crew of divers rescued 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018. 

"This was not a circumstance where the outcome was guaranteed. In fact, heartbreak was more likely," Howard says. "I was very interested in the drama of that."

Howard and screenwriter Will Nicholson break down the movie's most surprising fictional and real-life moments: 

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Coach Ek (James Teeradon Supapunpinyo, center) leads the boys in meditation in the cave.

Did the soccer team meditate inside the cave? 

The soccer team was trapped for more than two weeks before they were rescued. In one early scene in the cave, the boys' coach (James Teeradon Supapunpinyo) guides them through Buddhist meditation, telling them the fear is in their minds. 

"By all accounts, (they meditated) often, and it was very constructive and very crucial," Howard says.

Although it was initially just referenced in the script, Howard says he wanted "an opportunity to see this meditation." So Nicholson wrote a scene in the cave where "the kids are starting to panic" and "you can see the coach calm them down." 

A worried mom (Pattrakorn "Ploy" Tungsupakul) waits for news about her trapped son in "Thirteen Lives."

Were the good luck bracelets a real thing? 

Before the rescue gets underway, a trapped boy's mother (Pattrakorn "Ploy" Tungsupakul) gives Rick and John a bag of red beaded bracelets for good luck. Rick shoves his bracelet in his pocket, saying he doesn't "believe in luck," but agrees to give them to the other divers and boys on their mission. 

Although Ploy's character is a composite of many parents, the bracelets themselves were real: "That was a wonderful discovery," Nicholson says. "They were blessed by a Buddhist monk," and the divers put them on the boys' wrists before swimming out of the cave. 

At the end of the film, Rick returns home to England and empties his pockets. He rediscovers his bracelet and stops to stare at it. "It's up to you to (wonder), 'Does he think this had some power after all?' " Nicholson says.

Commander Kiet (Thira Chutikul, left), Dr. Karn (Popetorn "Two" Soonthornyanakij), Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton), John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) prepare one of the boys for the underwater trip out of the cave.

Were the boys actually given ketamine injections? 

Given how weak the boys were, and the length of the swim out of the cave, the only option was for the divers to put the boys under using anesthetics and carry them underwater. 

Before the rescue, Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton), an anesthetist and cave diver, tells the local governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) their plan and that they are expecting some casualties. "No one must know about the method you propose, not even the parents," the governor replies.

It's true that "the parents never knew," Nicholson says. And those who did "were very anxious about it because had it gone wrong, it was a man-made intervention that would have been killing them. That risk was devastating." 

Choosing which drugs and how much to inject was a challenge in itself: If the boys were given too much, their respiratory systems could shut down; if they were given too little, they could wake up underwater and drown. 

"There were three drugs," Nicholson says. "There was a tranquilizer to calm them down. Then there was a drug to dry up the saliva in their mouth so they didn't choke while unconscious. And then the anesthetic was ketamine, and it was a lot. As you see in the film, (the divers) had to re-administer the ketamine several times because it was a (roughly six-hour) journey and the ketamine would keep them fully unconscious for one to two hours." 

Rick (Viggo Mortensen, left), Harry (Joel Edgerton), Chris (Tom Bateman), John (Colin Farrell) and Captain Arnont (Thiraphat "Tui" Sajakul) helped lead the rescue efforts.

Did Harry really take over for another diver? 

The divers used a guide rope to lead them in the right direction through the cave's winding passageways. Toward the end of the rescue in the movie, Rick finds diver Chris (Tom Bateman) huddled on some rocks in the cave with one of the unconscious boys, after grabbing a wrong cable and panicking that he lost his way.

After talking with Rick, Harry volunteers to take the boy for the rest of the journey, which Chris reluctantly agrees to. ("I reckon you did the hardest part," Harry tells him. "Why don't I do the last part?")

"I don't know if that exact conversation happened – I made that up – but I do know every beat (of that situation) happened like that," Nicholson says. "Harry did take the boy and Chris felt terrible. He felt like he failed because he was the only one who didn't complete his mission, as it were. But all the (other divers) were incredibly supportive of him." 

Ground water expert Thanet Natisri (Nophand Boonyai, left) directs volunteers in diverting water away from the flooded caves.

How long did they actually have until the cave flooded again? 

Howard says he wanted to highlight the Thai people's rescue efforts and "improvisational problem-solving": splitting bamboo in half to create pipes that would carry water out of the caves, and sacrificing their farmlands for water to be pumped onto. 

Title cards at the end of the movie state that "volunteers diverted an estimated 56 million gallons of water from the cave" and "farmers who suffered losses were offered government compensation." 

Another card reveals that just days after the rescue was completed, monsoon rains caused the cave to become "completely submerged for eight months." The film depicts a race against time to complete the mission before the cave floods again. 

"They had three days of getting them out, and they knew the monsoon was coming," Nicholson says. "On the second night of the rescue, the rain came down very fast and an awful lot of water started filling the caves. It did make it very stressful on the last day, and once they got them all out, they couldn't have gone back in. 

"I mean, you really could not invent that – that's exactly what happened."