© May 20, 2006 by Pamela Lillian Valemont

BA Film  & TV Production

(Adapted from a book, letters and records kept by Merv J Ryan)


NB: The above book (and therefore the screenplay)  is a faction: largely a true account of the author's experience as a National Service Conscript, serving in the Vietnam War.  Names have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty.  


Amazingly, Merv had kept a uniquely meticulous diary of his service in Australia from the time of his National Service call-up in 1969,  while being trained from a raw recruit, to a soldier ready to fight in a war, and afterward overseas in Vietnam, as well as letters home to his wife Nancy, and to his parents.


The screenplay was developed not just from the book, but also from these letters of record, technical training services manuals, as well as daily email correspondence and meetings together during which questions were asked by the screenwriter and answers given by the author.    These were faithfully drawn upon, and excerpts have been quoted verbatim in the screenplay.  


In regard to the  actual serving experience of Private Merv Ryan as an Australian citizen conscripted to the Vietnam War, from the time of call up to the time of discharge from the army, every effort has been made to keep truth and authenticity in the script. 


The screenplay therefore stands as an alarming exposé as to what really went on here and overseas during the era of the Vietnam War.  From the bastardization of troops to their shameful treatment as serving men in Vietnam at the hands of their commanding officers.  Evidence of contravention of the  Geneva Convention in regard to the conduct of warfare. And through this screenplay, we have at least one man's daily documented evidence to prove it. 


This is a film that must be made, not only for the sake of the Vietnam Veteran Conscripts and their families, who have suffered so cruelly and given so  much, but also and maybe most especially for the people of Australia, and  the benefit of coming generations.   The film, although in part fictional, nevertheless  stands as an historical documented record  of vital importance to the nation.


As far as the saleability of this script goes, it would be hard to find a peer.  The film takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotions: by turns an empathy of frustration, anger, horror, laughter and joy, sadness and grief.  The frustration and anger of an unwilling conscript sent to a war many of his countrymen and women did not believe in;  the horror, tragedy and sadness of the South Vietnam war scenes is offset by humour.  This is a movie that will blow the box office.  


Sandy and  Mike Reed are young marrieds living in Brisbane in 1969.  Twenty-two-year-old Mike is a nervous young man, who has secured an apprenticeship as an electrician with the Southern Electric Authority of  Queensland.  Within 3 months of his marriage, he acquires his  trade papers, making him a qualified electrician.  Now he is allowed to sit in the front seat of the Austin work truck with the foreman instead of on one of the bench seats in the back of the canopy-covered vehicle.


His wife of the same age, Sandy, has had a difficult childhood.  Virtually orphaned at the age of eight when her mother died in childbirth,  she was abandoned by her drunken father, and she and some of her siblings, raised by their aunt.  The rest of the family of nine children were placed in an  orphanage, and eventually adopted to parents unknown.   Sandy was forced to leave school at the age of fourteen  to nurse her aunt when she became gravely ill with hepatitis.  Now she works in a paper factory in the industrial area of Rocklea.


The nervous young man and the emotionally damaged and vulnerable young woman have found in each other what each was looking for.  They love each other with a fierce devotion.   Mike is very protective of Sandy, and tries to shield her from all life's cruelty. He intends to give her the wonderful, happy and secure family life she missed out on.  She in turn looks to him as her salvation and saviour from life's hurts and harms.   Mike refuses to believe that the newly enacted National Service Act, which calls up young men of twenty years of age  for service, by drawing birthdates  at random out of a ballot box,  could ever reach into their lives and tear them apart.    


Mike has been raised in a loving home. His father is a Labor supporter,  bitterly opposed to the “Tories in Canberra” who have instituted compulsory National Service and instigated the war in Vietnam.  Mike is an avowed pacifist.  To prove it, he wears a copper peace symbol around his neck.  However, rather than risk  being seen as a coward,  arrested and committed to  prison, he nonetheless follows the line of least resistance, and registers as directed by the government for National Service.  


He convinces himself, and Sandy, that the army will not put his name into the ballot box, and if it does, and perchance his name falls out, they will release him from his commitment, simply because he is a married man.  After all, it has been generally accepted by the public, and frequently (albeit vaguely) stated by the government, that they follow a policy that  exempts married men from National Service.   Indeed, Mike has seen this policy in action.  He knows a bloke whose brother was exempted because he was married.  That's good enough for him. 


Yes, all of this has been well and truly enough to convince Mike that he is out of harm's way.  Not so with Sandy. Perhaps because life has dealt her some heartrending, cowardly, vicious and dirty  blows in the past, she remains skeptical and afraid that the army will take her Mike away from her.  Worse still, they might not return him to her unharmed, or even return him alive.  But Mike seeks to calm her fears, by continually reassuring her that she has nothing to worry about, and that her fears are unfounded.   He implores her to trust his judgment.  Finally, he has just about got her convinced, when the worst happens.  The axe falls.  The dreaded brown envelope arrives containing horrifying confirmation of Sandy's worst fears, and blasting Mike into a state of sickening shock.   


National Service training is nothing short of what  Amnesty International  might describe as  brainwashing:  harsh and dehumanizing.  After reducing him to an humiliated, emotional wreck, it then lifts him up and tells him that he is a soldier, something to be proud of.  And Mike looks at himself in the mirror; and true, staring back at him is the body of a fitter, stronger young man than the electrician with the underdeveloped body doing routine work on the power lines.  The lectures at the army base eventually convince an initially skeptical  Mike  utterly that he is being sent away to fight an enemy that is a creeping evil, predatory to humankind.   He is told that the Viet Cong have killed thousands of innocent, harmless villagers.  The domino theory is rammed home with convincing force.  Like the other conscripts, he is convinced of its authenticity. Yet, he vigilantly remains determined to get an Australian posting to a base with married quarters, where he can have Sandy with him.


Despite the fact that he applies for three postings, none of which is in the infantry, his submerged fears are brought abruptly to the surface with frightening reality when he gets posted to the infantry.    And it's only a matter of time before he gets notified that he will be sent as a reinforcement to Vietnam. And the propaganda machine has done its work. Most of the conscripts are rearing to get at the filthy Viet Cong and finish the bastards off, stop them in their tracks before they can take over the world, once and for all.  Then, he is sent away to fight in what he discovers to be one of the dirtiest wars in history.    


Once in the  combat zone, placed in a kill or be killed situation, without knowing enemy strength in armament or number, the hideous reality that emerges is a Mike who discovers that he kills Viet Cong, some unarmed, others hopelessly outarmed, carrying primitive and inadequate weaponry from WWII.    When he is told to “take no prisoners”, he at first naively asks what this means.  He soon finds out.  Then he does so as ordered. Prisoners are frequently killed and not imprisoned, in direct contravention of the Geneva Agreement, the kind of behaviour in warfare Mike has been led all his life to believe is totally un-Australian.  No base training has equipped him for the reality of this war.  


He questions an order to  simply shoot at everything that moves.   He fears shooting one of his fellow soldiers in this situation, and  is afraid that they will shoot him in the same.  On the battle field, wounded Viet Cong, (uniformed soldiers and pyjama clad villagers), even a youth who is not much more than a child,  are ordered to be “finished off” then they are grotesquely mutilated by the aptly nicknamed Sergeant “Troppo”,   before his eyes.   Although Mike and his fellow soldiers are   sickened by this mutilation of  their slain enemy, what their Sergeant does is nothing more than a weirdly repulsive act.  If they are there to fight,  it's all part of the job. After his first kill, Mike calmly sits down and eats his ration out of a tin, looking down at the brains of his youthful enemy on his boots.  Brain numbed, he really enjoys his meal. The  pre-war pacifist is unrecognizable as the man who now accepts it all  without question.  It is what he is being ordered to do, in defence of his country.  And it must be right, it's Australian.  And not only has Australia never lost a war, but Aussie soldiers are known for their heroism.  Not only that, he has been led to believe that when you're “over there”, fighting for your country,  the camaraderie between the men  is something that has always been, and always will be.  It too, is part and partial of Australians at war, part of the great Aussie brown slouch-hatted spirit. 


But to Mike's ever deepening enlightenment and creeping horror, he gradually realizes that he has been grossly misled, that he has, in fact, been labouring under some crazy   misapprehension.    This naive belief, that Aussie soldiers pull together as a team, comrades loyal and true, too will fade. Unlike the heroes he heard about in speeches on Anzac Day, those he proudly watched in  parades and marches, and read admiringly about in the history books at school, he learns that the reality of the Vietnam War is the direct antithesis of this. In this war, true heroes get demoted  and officers get promoted and  decorated  with undeserved honours in “jobs for the boys” style. 


Mike follows orders, like everyone else, from his  commanding officer, Kirby, a Lieutenant who will put his men into huge danger, like exposing them as sitting ducks in the open fields while he  hides out under protective cover in the jungle.  Kirby has no qualms about using his men as bait for the Viet Cong, to entice them out of their burrows and jungle hiding places,  just so he can rack up a higher number of kills for his platoon.  Mike too will come to hate with a vengeance the officer who does this to him.  He's not too surprised when his bush partner, Rick, an aboriginal forward scout, whose remarkable talents as a tracker have earned him a reputation as “the best in the business”,  tries to kill the officer by spearing him, and another vows and threatens to “take him out” when the war is over and they return to Australia. 


Mike fights a war that will give him nightmares of guilt and engulf him in years of rehabilitation on returning home.  A young Vietnamese girl, wearing the typical pyjama dress,  one day stands up in the paddy fields, in surrender to their forces.  She is taken prisoner, raped by the officers, and upon release, has her throat slit by the Viet Cong.   He is shocked and saddened when he encounters in the streets one of the tragic offshoots of war: child prostitution: little boys, offering the prostitution of their little sisters to the troops. 


Mike discovers too that he is fighting with an American ally that has had very different training in jungle warfare.  He and his comrades are highly critical of the Americans who go into war with transistor radios blaring, smoking pot and cigarettes,  announcing their coming to the Vietcong, who are “laughing all the way to Hanoi” at them.  Even though the Yanks carry “everything but the kitchen sink” with them into battle,  wearing heavy flack jackets and steel helmets, this makes them slow and cumbersome, in comparison to the Aussies who are “quicker on the ground” and “can be there amongst them ( The Cong) before they realize.”   


Food is scarce, and what they do have is crap.  Nothing but grey slops.  Why?  Mike first learns to be very angry, then eternally bitter about the Australian soldiers, the “pogos”, who “get soft jobs on the headquarters staff”[1], and sell their rations to the Viet Cong.  While these scum are “safe behind the wire”, Mike and his mates are out getting killed, injured, and lying at night in ambush among the human and animal faeces infested bogs that are the open rice paddy fields.   Too terrified to sleep when they are out at night, not fighting in direct contact with the Viet Cong, and too fired up to sleep in the day, prior to a night's ambushing. So dog tired, all of them, that they cannot rely on one of their own who is known to fall asleep from exhaustion while on watch.    


And so the hell goes on.   To survive in this living nightmarish hell, Mike, like the others, learns the coping mechanism of getting as drunk and as stoned as you can, as often as you can.  Ambushing in the shit, piss, mud and rain gets carried out by men sleep deprived into oblivion and hung over to buggery.  One and a half days off every six weeks does nothing to get them back on track. 


His tentmates, Peter LeBorgne, a former University student of politics and economics at Sydney University,  “Johnno” Johnman, a Christian evangelistic farm boy, and Rick Beeston, an aboriginal spray painter from Mt. Isa, are off on a wild spree of drunken highs and debauchery with the  pretty little South Vietnam bar girls/prostitutes.  All of them, except Mike, who initially keeps telling his new friend, bargirl Kym, that he's a married man.  He even gives her money to help her family.  Eventually, war ravaged, emotionally and physically sick, drained and totally vulnerable, he succumbs to Kym's charms and soothing sex therapy.  He is immediately guilty as hell, but is unable to tell Sandy of his unfaithfulness.  To add to his consternation, his mate, Bob Russell, who thinks Sandy's some hot chick, tells him he'll marry  Sandy if he (Mike) gets killed at war.  


When Bob is sent home to Australia after being seriously wounded in battle, Sandy goes to his side to comfort Mike's best mate. After a time, she becomes aware that her bedside ministrations are being seen as something more by the lovestruck Bob Russell.  She confides these concerns in a letter to Mike, which causes him disquiet and incites jealously, and contributes towards making  his enforced service all the more unbearable.  Finally, a letter arrives from Sandy telling him she has had a sexual encounter with Bob, more as payback than anything, for his affair with Kym.   Bob, being the true friend that he is, has shown her a photo of Mike and Kym in a suggestive clinch in the infamous Hong Kong Bar in Vung Tau.


When Mike finally gets the chance to return to Australia, because he is so conditioned to war and sees the relationship with Sandy as damaged beyond repair, he does not want to go home.  But his tour of duty is ended, and they send him home anyway. He writes to Sandy before he embarks for Australia and tries to explain to her the factors that have caused his unfaithfulness. When the ship docks at Brisbane wharf, Sandy runs across the deck and into his waiting arms.


It is only upon his return that the rot sets in in the form of nightmares of guilt, resentment and hatred.  A mixed bag of emotions:  an enemy he hated, yet compassionately empathized with.  A people who were living simple, poverty stricken lives, inadequately armed, fighting what seemed an impossible oppositional force with sophisticated weaponry.  Yet they won and we didn't.  Nobody in Australia seems to understand or care what he went through over there. There is no back up or support for emotional trauma.  Although Sandy has waited for him after all, his relationship and life with her suffers. She struggles to cope with the man who has returned to her a stranger. 

Despite the fact that they have one, then two children, he cannot live with her.  He cannot hold down a  job.  His Dad cannot listen to his wartime experiences.  His father's heart is broken, and his health declines.  What the war he opposed  has done to his son, who was forced to go there, has ruined not only his son's life, but shattered his own too. His mother too does not know how to help her son, who she despairingly watches flounder through life, unable to recover his positively expectant attitude to life and former happiness with his young wife.  Mike becomes an itinerant vagabond.


For years he wanders in and out of jobs.  The once happy young man of pre-conscription days is now a hopeless, drug and alcohol dependent waster who cannot hold down a job.  He takes no shit from anyone.  Lashes out and slogs  any bastard who is an arsehole and reminds him of the commanding officers he suffered so badly under during his national service training and during the war in Vietnam.     


When he finally wounds a harassing work boss badly, putting him into hospital,  a sympathetic and understanding magistrate orders him into rehabilitation as an alternative to a prison sentence.    Although he initially rejects the offers of help that are extended, he eventually  returns of his own accord and accepts them.  For the first time since he left Vietnam,  Mike Reed  is on his way home.


But his nightmares are not over yet.  The post-war promising new beginning for Mike and Sandy has degenerated into what both see as a relationship  beyond repair.  Sandy has had enough, and has moved to an unknown address for a whole new start for her and  the children.  


Then a drama ensues. The infatuated Bob Russell has never given up loving and wanting  Sandy to be his wife. And like Mike, he is far from well mentally.  Having been drinking for days at a stretch, he finally loads a rifle, then refuses to let her and the children leave his house, threatening suicide if she will not give up hanging on to Mike's memory, and marry him.   She manages to evade Bob, and phones Mike, terrified and distraught. Mike grabs his rifle, and tears over there. A showdown ensues, and after shooting and seriously wounding Mike, Bob ends his own life. 


Finally,  the crisis forces a happy outcome for Mike and Sandy who have almost lost each other: the film ends with Mike recovering from his wounds, and returning home to Sandy and the children, thereby taking the first steps towards a new beginning for them all as a family. 


Below: VIETNAM CONSCRIPT by Merv Ryan. Printed by Access Press. Self Publication by Merv Ryan. ©1992.




[1]    From the Australian poem, by Author Unknown, “Dinkie Die”.

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