A Michael Landon TV Movie Tells the Amazing Story of What John Everingham Did for Love

updated 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

All the world loves a brave lover. And if the 20th century doesn't offer many stories of knights in shining armor and damsels in distress, it does occasionally come up with the appropriate equivalent. Consider the case of John Everingham. Five years ago the Australian photojournalist's Laotian sweetheart, Keo Sirisomphone, was trapped in her Communist-ruled homeland. Government authorities would not allow her to leave and the chief of the secret police was trying to force her into sexual relations. Unwilling to believe that he could never see Keo again, Everingham plotted a daring rescue to pluck her from Laos. It was a love story made to be retold, and this Sunday it will be, when Michael Landon portrays Everingham in Love Is Forever, the TV movie of his exploit.

John Everingham's love affair with Keo Sirisomphone, 29, grew out of his love for her country. In 1966, at 16, the footloose Aussie set out from Brisbane for Europe. He never made it past Southeast Asia; the tranquillity of Laos beguiled him, and he settled down in the then quiet capital of Vientiane. "I'm 33 now," laughs Everingham, who today calls Bangkok home, "and I've still never made it to Europe."

Instead, he became a self-taught journalist, writing and free-lance reporting for NBC and BBC radio. Deeply moved by the savage impact of the Vietnam War on the three million Laotians, he blamed much of the suffering he saw on U.S. bombing of the central highlands. In February 1972 he was captured by the Communist-led Pathet Lao while covering the war. Upon his release a month later, he was in sympathy with the rebel cause. When the guerrillas triumphed in Laos in 1975, Everingham says, "I danced in the streets like everyone else."

The new government allowed the Aussie journalist to remain in Vientiane, but his optimism soon gave way to disillusionment. "The Communists did everything they said they wouldn't do and nothing they said they would do," Everingham observes. Though he cloaked his increasingly critical reporting for various Western publications by using pseudonyms on his stories, Soviet-trained security agents weren't fooled. They arrested him in 1977, and, following a week's interrogation in which he was taunted and denied food, water and sleep, Everingham was expelled to Thailand on trumped-up charges of espionage. He was forced to leave behind his photo files—100,000 pictures he'd taken over the previous 10 years. "It was the best photo library on Laos, but they weren't even smart enough to save it for their own use," he says bitterly.

Far worse was the wrenching separation from his fiancée, Keo. After Everingham's banishment, the young woman was blackmailed by the Laotian secret police chief, who threatened to send her to one of the regime's notorious "reeducation camps" unless she became his mistress. She stalled him while an anguished Everingham plotted her rescue from Thailand with the aid of a friendly diplomat who relayed the plan to Keo. Three attempts failed, but in May 1978 Everingham slipped into the muddy water on the Thailand side of the mile-wide Mekong River and, equipped with scuba gear, began the long underwater swim to Laos. Everingham was exhausted from battling the current when he reached the Laos shore near Vientiane and found Keo. She had walked out to a part-submerged sandbank, posing nervously as an angler. Everingham strapped the frightened Keo to his back—she could not swim—and gave her a spare mouthpiece for his oxygen tank to breathe through during the hazardous underwater return journey. In the inky depths of the river, Keo began spluttering in panic. Everingham rose to only inches below the surface so that Keo would see daylight and be reassured. After a 20-minute crossing the couple were hauled aboard a passing Thai patrol boat, free at last.

John and Keo married in 1979 and now live in Bangkok with their 10-month-old son, Ananda Matthew. John's career is booming again and his twin duties as set photographer and technical adviser on Love Is Forever allowed him to take his family from Thailand to Florida and the Bahamas, where underwater sequences were shot. Keo misses her family and writes to them often, but she looks to the future. "We have each other," she says resolutely, "and we can do whatever we want with our lives." No knight in shining armor could give her more.

From Our Partners