By Dawn's Early Light

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By Dawn's Early Light
Dawn s early light.jpg
Tagline: "Four People. Three Minutes. Two Choices. One Chance For Survival."
Directed by Jack Sholder
Produced by Thomas M Hammel
Written by William Prochnau (novel)
Bruce Gilbert (teleplay)
Starring Powers Boothe
Rebecca De Mornay
James Earl Jones
Martin Landau
Rip Torn
Jeffrey DeMunn
Darren McGavin
Ken Jenkins
Music by Trevor Jones
Paul Hulme
Cinematography Alexander Gruszynski
Edited by Tony Lombardo
Paravision International
Distributed by HBO Pictures
Release dates
  • May 19, 1990 (1990-05-19)
Running time
100 minutes
Country United States
Language English

By Dawn’s Early Light (AKA The Grand Tour) is an HBO Original Movie, aired in 1990 and set in 1991. It is based on the 1983 novel Trinity's Child, written by William Prochnau. The film is one of the last to depict the events of a fictional World War III before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.[1]


Renegade Soviet military officers steal a nuclear missile, launching it at the Soviet city of Donetsk from Turkey. Soviet defense systems, believing a NATO attack is in progress, order an immediate launch of ICBMs and SLBMs at the United States.

Moments after the Soviet attack is launched, the President of the United States receives a teleprinter message in English at the White House Situation Room (apparently translated and relayed by the Pentagon-NMCC MOLINK team staffing the actual Moscow-Washington hotline fax machine then in use[2]) in which the Soviet leader [Note 1] informs him of the response as well as discovery that the first missile was launched by renegades. [Note 2] He says the USSR is willing to absorb a proportionate U.S. counterstrike that would kill between six and nine million people although the Soviets will retaliate for any larger counterattack, making all-out nuclear exchange likely. To further add to the turmoil, China launches its own strike against the Soviets in accordance with a treaty with the United States.

The President argues over the phone with General Renning at Strategic Air Command headquarters over whether the teleprinter message is true or a bluff intended to trick the U.S. into not responding to a deliberate attack. A nuclear missile explodes near Washington, D.C. (overshooting its target, Andrews Air Force Base, and destroying, among other things, Walter Reed Hospital and damaging the White House). Renning then tells the president the Soviets have launched a second attack, seemingly confirming that the Soviet Union was being untruthful. As "Marine One" prepares to evacuate the President from the White House, the Emergency War Orders officer receives a teleprinter message informing him that the second nuclear strike was directed at the Chinese, not the U.S. However, while Marine One is en route to Dover Air Force Base, another nuclear burst downs the helicopter.

With the president, vice president and senior constitutional successors assumed dead, the Secretary of the Interior, located near Baton Rouge, is installed as president in accordance with the order of succession, and gets Secret Service codename "Condor." Although Condor at first seems receptive to Navy admiral "Harpoon"'s suggestion of containing then reducing hostilities, he quickly decides to follow the advice of hawkish Colonel Fargo, who sees destruction of the Soviet leadership caste and widespread other strikes as the only acceptable prosecution of the conflict. On the Boeing E-4 airborne command post, Condor orders a decapitating strike ("21-Zebra") as urged by Fargo. Condor maintains his decision even after learning the president is still alive, believing or pretending to believe, to justify retaining power, the communication to be a Soviet trick.

From a FEMA emergency shelter in Olney, Maryland, the blinded president uses a shortwave radio to contact the Soviet leader and the Boeing EC-135 "Looking Glass" SAC airborne command aircraft, whose commanding officer, after challenging the president to establish his identity, accepts it, although the president, in his circumstances, does not have all the requisite information. The president orders the "Looking Glass" battle staff to stand down the bombers and land-based missiles. However, to prevent Condor from ordering a full-scale launch of SLBMs via Navy TACAMO communications aircraft, Looking Glass resorts to ramming the E-4B, destroying both. The president subsequently reasserts control and orders "Cease all hostilities. Maintain alert status," with the Soviets apparently responding in kind.

Throughout the crisis, a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, "Polar Bear 1," from the time of its emergency take-off from Fairchild Air Force Base has been receiving orders to enter the Soviet Union and begin destroying cities. During an attack by MIG-25 Foxbats, one of which the enlisted tailgunner manages to destroy, the pilot accepts the co-pilot's suggestion to expend a nuke meant for Irkutsk against a mountainside as the B-52 passes over, hoping the blast will kill the remaining MIGs. It works, and partly as result, Polar Bear 1 never drops a bomb on a city. The B-52 pilot and female co-pilot, who carry on a clandestine (and by military regulation, prohibited) affair prior to the emergency, eventually decide (driven by the co-pilot against the pilot's initial strong resistance) to disobey orders, stop attacking and leave the USSR if they can.

One of the crew's junior officers, deranged by his family's deaths at now-destroyed Fairchild AFB, clearly detached from reality altogether, tries to kill the pilot. After a violent struggle, the man ejects from the bomber, pulling other crew, including the tail gunner, a key NCO who ably serves the officers, out to their deaths, leaving the pilots alone with engine fires (stopped by cutting those engines) and a hole in the fuselage. The bomber descends dangerously. Their decision to turn back and not attack is what causes the Russians to turn back a group of their own bombers, after which the Looking Glass commanding officer tries to convince Condor to ramp down the conflict.

When Condor learns of Polar Bear 1's mutiny against 21-Zebra, he orders US Navy F/A-18s from the aircraft carrier USS Midway to shoot down the B-52 or "escort to a water landing." After a despairing verbal exchange between the F/A-18 element leader and B-52 pilot, the F/A-18s are seconds from executing orders when their carrier is torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. The element leader, with no place to land at hand, decides like Polar Bear 1 to abandon orders and, after joking with the B-52 pilot about meeting on Bora Bora and enjoying "dancing girls," peels off with his wingman to find whatever chance for survival they can. In the end, after combat's end, the B-52 flies into the sunrise as the pilot says "Welcome to tomorrow", not knowing that their actions helped defuse an all-out nuclear war.

A Boeing E-4B command aircraft that featured prominently in the film.



Principal photography took place from August 7 to late September 1989.[4] The use of military hardware such as the B-52 bomber and Boeing E-4 enabled a realistic account of the Strategic Air Command in action.[5]

Differences from the source material[edit]

There are two major differences between the plot of the novel and the movie, the first being that the crisis in the novel is started by a deliberate Soviet attack to counter the U.S. military buildup they are unable to compete with.[6] The other major difference is in the romantic subplot between Moreau and Cassidy, which is not only absent from the book, but the characters themselves actually mock the idea of such a relationship between them.[7]


Contemporary reviews of By Dawn's Early Light centered on the confrontation by nuclear powers and gave it accolades. "There never has been a made-for-cable movie as sleek and efficient as By Dawn's Early Light. Fast-moving, complex, and only occasionally a bit hokey, it's by far the best original movie project HBO has overseen."[8] "Boasting high production values, okay special effects, and a surprisingly top-notch cast ... a thrilling drama that is your better-than-average made-for-TV movie."[9] More recent reviews were similar, "Probably the end of the line for Cold War confrontation on this scale, but compelling drama nonetheless."[5]

Awards and honors[edit]

In 1990, James Earl Jones was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Special[10] and Matte World Digital[1] won for Outstanding Achievement in Special Visual Effects.[10]

See also[edit]

  • Fail-Safe, a 1962 book and film with a similar theme



  1. ^ The Soviet leader is consistently called president here; Mikhail Gorbachev about the time of the film established and occupied a new post of president of the Soviet Union.
  2. ^ "...the Americans receive a teletype from their counterparts in the Soviet Union stating that they have now determined that the first missile was not launched by NATO."[3]


  1. ^ a b "By Dawn's Early Light." Matte World Digital official site. Retrieved: May 10, 2012.
  2. ^ Stone, Webster. "Moscow's Still Holding." The New York Times, September 18, 1988.
  3. ^ Lisboa 2011, p. 28.
  4. ^ "Notes: 'By Dawn's Early Light' (1990)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: May 10, 2012.
  5. ^ a b Freitas 2011, p. 91.
  6. ^ Prochnau 1983, pp. 31, 46, 296.
  7. ^ Prochnau 1983, pp. 16, 64, 245.
  8. ^ Tucker, Ken. "Review: By Dawn's Early Light." Entertainment Weekly, June 8, 1990. Retrieved: May 10, 2012.
  9. ^ Leong, Anthony. "Review: 'By Dawn's Early Light' Movie." MediaCircus, 1997. Retrieved: May 10, 2012.
  10. ^ a b "Primetime Awards." Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Retrieved: May 10, 2012.


External links[edit]