Roemary E Lunn reviews a thrilling and thorough documentary of the rescue of the youth football team from a flooded cave in Northern Thailand
In the summer of 2018, the world was engrossed by the fate of 12 boys and their coach who were lost in a flooded Thai cave. For 17 days we avidly followed the news about the ‘Wild Boars’ football team. Reports were broadcast on multiple channels, and articles were published in countless newspapers around the globe.
Despite the wall-to-wall, 24/7 coverage, and several interviews and press conferences by the Thai personnel involved, we saw very little of the actual rescue. This was because the international rescue team had competently done their job, and brought order to the mission. The US military unit (logistical experts, tacticians and diplomats), the British volunteer cavers Mike Clayton and Gary Mitchell (‘Surface Control’ specialists), and the Thai military, all ensured the site was tightly restricted and contained.
Only key rescue personnel could gain access to Tham Luang cave. Indeed, when the rescue itself went ahead, all the press were actively removed from the vicinity of the scene and relocated 1km away, and privacy screens were erected around the cave. This shielding even included the transfer of each child (and the coach) from the field ambulance to the waiting medivac helicopter. In addition, pretty much to a man, the dive team actively avoided engaging with the press, bar one who ‘showboated’. That diver subsequently left the project after the boys had been found and before the extraction mission commenced.
The rescue was nothing short of a miracle. While several of the details were first revealed to the international diving community at the EUROTEK 2018 conference in Birmingham, not all were. As time passes, we learn more of what went on behind the scenes, thanks in part to the books published by Rick Stanton, John Volanthen, Richard Harris and Craig Challen.
Now one of the first films – The Rescue – has been released in the UK. There are at present another three out or in production, including Ron Howard’s 13 Lives and The Cave.
The Rescue, a cinematic feature documentary – funded by National Geographic, had its London premiere on 27 October 2021. The world premiere was on 2 September 2021, at the Telluride Film Festival, and it was released in the USA on 8 October 2021. To date, The Rescue has won five awards, and it has been nominated for 11 others. It will be available on streaming for the first time on Friday 3 December on Disney+.
This film is a credit to the tenacity and grit of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers certainly did their homework – they spent three years painstakingly reviewing every piece of video available to them.
‘For me, the film was inspirational. It showed the dedication needed to reach that level of diving skill, also the level of logistical planning, and teamwork involved in the rescue’
Paul Young, St Ives Sub Aqua Club
There are two things that make The Rescue essential viewing. The husband and wife director team pulled off a coup and managed to secure 87 hours of unseen Thai Navy Seal footage, just as they finished editing a first draft of the documentary. It had taken two years of negotiations for Vasarhelyi to convince the military to give her access to the footage. Vasarhelyi and Chin re-cut their documentary to include more than 15 minutes of the Seal footage.
The documentary makers had an equally challenging second task. Gaining access to, and winning the trust of the key rescue divers involved, and then getting them to REALLY talk.
‘It’s a hugely intricate story’
Rick Stanton, Thai Cave Rescue Team
Rick Stanton, MBE GM; John Volanthen, GM; Dr Richard ‘Harry’ Harris, SC, OAM; Craig Challen, SC, OAM; Jason Mallinson, QGM; Chris Jewell, QGM and Jim Warny, Knighthood of the Léopold order, are used to public speaking. They have given presentations at the likes of EUROTEK, OzTEK, DEMA and Rebreather Forum 3. However, they are all intensely reserved men, yet somehow Elizabeth Vasarhelyi has successfully teased some very private and revealing thoughts and comments from them all, in a kind and non-invasive manner. You don’t squirm when you watch the footage. Something I did during the 2018 rescue when the Daily Mail ran a big splash about one of the protagonist’s love life.
‘I did used to worry that I was a bit too cold, that I was a bit too unemotional. I found a use and a purpose to that level of detachment. You can use it to do good things’
Chris Jewell, Thai Cave Rescue Team
You can’t help but get thoroughly engaged with The Rescue. You certainly experience a rollercoaster of emotions. While I watched the film John Volanthen made me cry, and I just wanted to reach out and give Dr Richard ‘Harry’ Harris a big comforting hug. His description of anaesthetizing a boy, then checking that the full face mask was working properly, was exceptionally humane. And Rick Stanton? He came up with a corking quote: ‘I think I hold great pride in what we did. You could say it’s justification for the dedication I put forward into a ridiculous minority sport that no one ever took seriously.
Nothing has been dumbed down in The Rescue, and the terminology used is correct. You’ll know if you are a passionate, knowledgeable diver that there are times you want to throw your shoes at the television because the reporting language and information is appallingly inaccurate. You don’t have that problem with this documentary. Yes, you will hear the dive team talk about oxygen in cylinders, but that is because the boys were breathing a very high nitrox mix, not straight air/21%. I can appreciate that the documentary makers really didn’t want to get into the nuances of explaining what EANx75 (enriched air nitrox 75%) is to the general (non-diving) public.
Refreshingly the filmmakers have been very open in the fact they have especially shot re-enactment sequences. You certainly don’t feel cheated or short-changed by this. Vasarhelyi and Chin have listened and understood how important the relevant cave diving details are to those who do this extreme sport. Throughout meticulous attention to detail has been maintained. Vasarhelyi explained: ‘There was a fundamental problem in this film in that there was no known footage from within the cave, so we knew from the get-go we had to do re-enactments. Rick and John proved to be incredibly important to us, because the divers were able to show us exactly what they did that no one witnessed except them.’
‘All we said we’d do is we’d turn up with exact equipment we had in Thailand and do exactly what we did there. The only way we’re going to come across as genuine is doing what we genuinely did’
Rick Stanton, Thai Cave Rescue Team
The re-enactments are as authentic as they can be. In fact, you’d swear the footage you are watching is the real thing. While the film doesn’t particularly show zero-visibility diving – what would be the point? All you’d see is liquid chocolate brown water – there is a very strong impression of diving in nil viz. This, along with the divers NOT acting, works. John Volanthensaid: ‘As cave divers, we would claim that we can’t act, so we would essentially refuse to act, which is the distinction I would make. The flow was there, the water was murky, we used real Thai children, volunteers… I was certainly very aware of that weight of responsibility again, just to make sure everyone came through safely.’
Of course, The Rescue includes the iconic scene with that most vital question – ‘How many of you? Thirteen? Brilliant!’
But what we get extra here are the nuggets – the small, more intimate moments. Such as watching the Thai Navy Seal footage of the boys as John Volanthen draws on his skills as a father and scout leader to positively encourage the boys in motivational cheers. These video vignettes add precious impact to the film.
Despite the fact you walk into the cinema knowing the football team got out of Tham Luang cave safely, the resulting documentary is a real edge-of-your-seat watch, because it is very cleverly structured. It seamlessly blends the unique unseen Thai Navy Seal footage with archive news reports, re-enactment sequences, direct-to-camera talking-head interviews and impressively detailed, easy-to-understand graphics. These ingredients make for an utterly compelling high-quality film, with the gripping tale primarily told by Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, while other rescuers also reveal their inner commentary, thoughts and feelings.
‘Taking on that massive responsibility and trying to persuade a foreign government to do something that was, on paper, quite ludicrous’
Rick Stanton, Thai Cave Rescue Team
The Rescue’ will give you an insight into the sheer magnitude of what the rescue divers physically went through.
The team entered the water in Chamber Three in Tham Luang cave, and dived in zero visibility, or waded through flooded passageways to get to the boys. Both Rick and John remark on the high flow in the cave (effectively a current). Rick told me that by the time the team were bringing out the boys, the flow had calmed down a lot, compared to when Rick and John were searching for the boys.
The journey of 1,507m from Chamber Three to the boys took approximately 2.5 hours. There the rescue diver had to collect an unconscious child – who could begin to wake up at any point – and the perilous return trip back to Chamber Three commenced. Another 1,507m journey, taking at least another 2.5 hours, if not more. This was because not only was the diver tired, they were also very much aware they had another soul’s life in their hands. Each rescue diver had to physically protect their child from (a) drowning and (b) the cave itself throughout the whole process. It’s not really a good thing to accidentally smack a child’s head on a protruding part of the cave while you dive them out.
‘The Rescue is riveting. Really well done. Highly recommended’
Professor Simon Mitchell, world-renowned diving doctor
I have found it amusing to read the reviews of this film by the mainstream media where they have written about ‘a quirky ragtag bunch of accidental heroes’ and ‘a motley crew of elite British cave divers with specialist skills and equipment’. Well, that’s one way to describe John’s sartorial splendour of a ‘Sean the Sheep’ T-shirt and Crocs, and the rubber ring that Rick uses for buoyancy. Fashion and the latest equipment are not important to these divers. The only thing that matters is that the gear and clothing fit, work and function.
All the journalists remarked on how the Brit and Aussie divers are self-deprecating. That they play down the heroics and emphasise the importance of teamwork. How caving and cave diving is an odd hobby and ‘these are peculiar individuals’. Again the mainstream journos have failed to grasp is that this is what most ardent, fanatical cavers and divers are like. What you see is what you get. All very normal. Life is far less complicated underwater/ground. This is where we seek solace, where we fit, and find peace. It’s the rest of the world that is peculiar.
Rick, John, Jason, Chris et al really do enjoy finding, pushing and then exploring virgin passageways. They also happen to be very good at it, hence when things go wrong in a cave, their mobile numbers are on speed dial.
‘Cavers rescue cavers’
Joe Parsons, OFD Cave Rescue Team, November 2021
It’s a straightforward concept in the UK, cavers rescue cavers. A team of unpaid volunteers go underground and take up the role of emergency service personnel. As I write this, probably the longest rescue in South Wales caving history has recently wrapped up. At least 242 voluntary cave rescuers from all of the UK’s principal caving areas (10 teams) spent 54 hours under ‘OFD’ (Ogof Ffynnon Ddu) – a Welsh mountain – rescuing a man from a cave. Some of them have been topside manning a cave-link radio and got to experience all the weather. Among this rescue team were personnel from the Thai cave rescue, and cavers who helped remotely support the Thai cave rescue from the UK.
‘Without generosity you cannot be a volunteer’
Waleeporn Gunan, widow of Thai Navy Seal Saman Gunan
OFD and Thailand amply demonstrated that EVERY cave rescue requires a lot of people, to rescue a few! Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have therefore had a difficult call of who and what to keep in, and conversely leave out of The Rescue. The role that the support team of Rob Harper, Josh Bratchley, Lance Corporal Connor Roe and the ‘Euro Divers’ played, is very lightly touched on. Frustrating it might be, but perhaps this is a positive thing because it gives space for the voices from key Thai and USA personnel to be woven into the story. This makes the documentary more rounded and gives it balance. I was, however, a little surprised at the inclusion of the spiritual aspect, but then Thailand is a highly religious country, and faith is intertwined in everyday life
‘A triumph of altruism, ingenuity and perseverance in the face of impossible odds, by the very people you might initially have dismissed as not up to the task’
At the time (Summer 2018), because of the mass of reporting going on, I certainly missed the arrival of the revered Thai monk Phar Khuva Boonchum at the cave. He visited Tham Luang on 29 June 2018 to conduct religious ceremonies. The monk accurately predicted that the coach and the boys would be found alive, however, there would be two sacrifices. When you watch the film you find out that Boonchum was 100 per cent correct. Karma? What you gain with one hand, you lose with the other?
‘We would be with the boys until the bitter end’
Thai Navy Seal, ‘The Rescue’ film
After the rescue was completed the words ‘hero’ and ‘bravery’ were repeatedly bandied about by the mass media. The group of divers I still think to this day that was exceptionally brave were the Thai Navy Seals, with the heroes being those that dived in and stayed with the boys for the duration of the rescue. They knew they were potentially on a one-way trip, and could die with the boys in the cave.
The Thai Navy Seals equipment was totally unsuitable for cave diving, and they had not been trained in this type of extreme diving, yet they got on with it. The awful tragedy of Sergeant Major Saman Gunan’s death is handled with dignity and respect.
‘Best film of the rescue so far’
Rob Harper, Thai Cave Rescue Team
This is a terrific film, right up to the closing credits. Then the directors over-egg the pudding with a saccharine song played over the credits. It is totally unnecessary and overkill. The film score is on point up until the credits. I’m am not surprised that the score has been shortlisted for ‘best original score – documentary’ for the Critic’s Choice Documentary Awards.
There are many layers to this documentary and it stands up to repeated viewing. I have watched it twice, and it is just as compelling the second time around. It is also not without humour – the audience certainly enjoyed Rick and John’s dry wit – it was lovely to hear genuine belly laughs echo around the cinema.
‘It’s an accurate and wonderfully thought-out portrayal of the events we were involved in’
Josh Bratchley, Thai Cave Rescue Team
Awards to date
- Camden International Film Festival 2021: Audience Award
- Cinema Eye Honours, ‘The Unforgettables’ category: Rick Stanton
- HEARTLAND International Film Festival: Audience Choice
- Middleburg Film Festival: Best Documentary
- Toronto International Film Festival 2021: People’s Choice Award for Documentaries