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)
Based on Trinity's Child
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]


At the height of the Cold War, a group of renegade Soviet officials have grown afraid of losing power as good relations between the US and Russia reach new highs. Trying to force a war between the two superpowers that will allow them to oust the Soviet President, they steal a nuclear missile and launch it at the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Soviet defense systems, believing a NATO attack is in progress, order an immediate launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) at the United States. The Soviet attack is primarily focused on military targets, such as ICBM silos and air bases.

The United States Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Offutt Air Force Base detects the incoming missiles and begins to scramble its forces in response. They launch their two command planes, one called the Looking Glass (which is manned by a US Air Force General code named "Alice") and the other a Boeing E-4 command plane (headed by a US Navy Admiral code named "Harpoon"). Meanwhile, General Renning at SAC headquarters contacts the President of the United States and informs him of the incoming missiles, urging him to give the authorization needed to launch a counter-attack against the Soviet Union. He has less than 10 minutes to make his decision, as a Soviet submarine has launched a missile at Washington, D.C..

While the President is speaking with General Renning in the White House Situation Room, a teleprinter message from the Moscow-Washington hotline arrives (apparently translated into English and relayed by the Pentagon-NMCC MOLINK team staffing the actual hotline fax machine then in use[2]) in which the Soviet leader [Note 1] says he has discovered the Donetsk missile was launched by rebels, but it is too late to call off the missile strike.[Note 2] He offers the President three options: first the US may choose not to retaliate, and the war will come to a quick end; second the US may launch a limited nuclear counterstrike, and the Soviets will not respond as long as that counterattack does not exceed what the Soviet first strike has done (killing between six and nine million people); and third the US may launch all-out response, but by so doing the Soviets will also launch all of their remaining missiles and bombers.

The President argues over the phone with General Renning about whether the teleprinter message is true or a bluff intended to trick the US into not responding to a deliberate attack. As the time for decision draws near, China launches its own ICBMs at the Soviets, further adding to the chaos. Before the President can react, the missile aimed at Washington detonates, severely damaging the White House. It was originally intended to take out Andrews Air Force Base, but overshot its target and landed in the middle of a suburban area, killing around 50,000 people. Renning then tells the President the Soviets have launched a second attack, seemingly confirming that the message was a lie. With only moments left before SAC headquarters is destroyed, the President finally gives in and gives the authorization for nuclear launch, but makes Renning promise him that the response will not be any larger than the Soviet attack. The President is then ushered out of the White House to his waiting helicopter.

Back at Omaha, General Renning and his men watch in silent horror as their displays show nuclear detonations all across America. The General issues the orders for the response and makes one final call to "Alice" in the Looking Glass plane, and bids his old friend and fellow soldier goodbye just as an ICBM wipes out the base. As Marine One takes off with President from the White House, his Emergency War Orders officer receives a message informing him that the second Soviet nuclear strike was, in fact, directed at the Chinese and not the US. The President, however, doesn't get the chance to inform his generals of this, as another nuclear burst downs the helicopter with its shockwave.

While all this is happening, flight crews with the United States strategic bomber force have been scrambling to get their planes in the air before their bases are destroyed. One such crew is that of a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress with the callsign "Polar Bear 1," who manage to take off just minutes before a missile wipes out Fairchild Air Force Base. The bomber is piloted by Major Cassidy and his co-pilot Captain Moreaux, a female pilot with whom he has been having an undercover love affair. The sudden transition from being on the ground to being in the air in a real nuclear war has shaken the crew, and their navigator (a young airman named Tyler) is struggling to come to terms with the fact that his family was just killed with the rest of Fairchild base. Their Electronic Warfare Officer is also killed by the shock wave from the nuclear blast, leaving the plane's gunner to fulfill his duties.

With Strategic Air Command headquarters and the White House both gone, Alice and his crew on the Looking Glass are now the ranking officers of SAC, and take responsibility over the surviving bombers and missile silos. Harpoon and the E-4 constitute what is left of the federal government, and are now tasked with finding and swearing in the presidential successor. Most of the successors are assumed dead or are unreachable in the destruction of Washington, D.C., so the Secretary of the Interior becomes the nation's new leader. Once on board the E-4, the new acting President is given the code name "Condor" and briefed on the situation by senior military advisors. Harpoon advises Condor that the Soviet Union is just as desperate to avoid escalating the conflict as they are, and pleads with his new commander-in-chief to show the Soviet leaders he is willing to call a ceasefire. Since ground communications have been knocked out by the first salvo, they will do this by turning the bombers around and seeing if the Soviets also recall theirs. However, another military advisor named Colonel Fargo believes that the Soviets want nothing more than to wipe the United States out, and will be willing to accept great losses to achieve their goal. As Harpoon and Fargo argue their points, Condor retires to the private Presidential office to think and pray over what his decision will be.

Somewhere outside Olney, Maryland, a young boy stumbles upon the crash site of Marine One, and finds the President's military aide lying on the ground badly injured. He calls to the boy for help and reveals that the original President is still alive, though unconscious. The boy returns a short time later with his mother, and they help get the President and his aide to a FEMA emergency shelter where they receive medical attention.

During this time, Polar Bear 1 is attacked by a trio of MIG-25 Foxbat fighter jets. While the tail gunner is able to take out one, the other two come dangerously close to the bomber. Their evasive maneuvers aren't enough to shake the fast jets. Captain Moreaux suggests dropping one of their nuclear bombs on the side of a mountain range in Alaska, using the other side of the mountain to shield their plane from the blast while the pursuing fighters would be disintegrated. Major Cassidy agrees and the plan works, allowing the bomber to proceed to its "positive control point," where it begins to orbit and wait for further instructions.

On board the E-4, Condor emerges from the Presidential office having made a decision: he will go with Colonel Fargo's plan to send their bombers on a "grand tour" of the Soviet Union, destroying their leadership bunkers and eliminating the Soviet government, after which the US submarines would surface and fire their missiles at the remaining Soviet cities. Harpoon tries one last time to convince him otherwise, but his mind is made up. Harpoon then decides to retire to his quarters and tries to leave before giving Condor the nuclear authentication codes, but is stopped by Colonel Fargo and forced to hand over the card. Fargo and Condor then make the call to Alice and the Looking Glass, giving the authentication codes and ordering him to execute battle plan "21-Zebra," sending the bombers after the Soviet leadership. Alice tries to suggest that Condor listen to Harpoon's advice, but his mind is made up. Alice obeys his orders and begins to organize the bombers for the attack.

The orders for "21-Zebra" are received by the crew of Polar Bear 1 with mixed reactions. Major Cassidy is just relieved that they won't have to bomb civilian targets, but Captain Moreaux is horrified at the thought of killing off all Soviet leadership. She argues that if all the leadership is dead, there will be nobody left to "turn [the war] off," resulting in even greater casualties. She ultimately tells Cassidy that she refuses to carry out the orders, and he in turn hands her a suicide pill and orders her out of the cockpit. Just as she is about to leave, he grabs her arm and breaks down, begging her not to go. She returns to her station and they decide together that they will turn their plane around and face the consequences together. Cassidy heads into the cabin and informs the rest of the crew of their decision, which the gunner and radar navigator agree to. However the fifth crew member, Tyler, has been steadily losing his grip on reality as the death of his family members has settled in. His only response to the plan is to repeat that he is "Emergency War Order ready" over and over again, before he lashes out and tries to attack Cassidy, who knocks him out with a punch.

Back at the FEMA shelter, the real President of the United States has regained consciousness and is beginning to asses the situation. Both of his legs are broken and he has been blinded by the flash of the nuclear blast that took down his helicopter. He learns that the Secretary of the Interior has become Condor, and that the Soviet leadership has been desperately trying to contact him (the real President) via radio. The FEMA staff manages to put him in contact with the Soviet President, and they discuss what can be done to end the nuclear exchange. Both men are on the verge of losing control of their military forces due to the broken lines of communication and extreme chaos. The US military doesn't even know the real President is alive. The President promises his Soviet counterpart that if he can prevent their military for launching any attacks for the next hour, he will be able to contact Alice and get him to turn the bombers around. The bigger problem will be trying to contact the Navy TACAMO planes that are in charge of the submarines before they fire their missiles at the scheduled times.

On Polar Bear 1, the crew notices that a flight of Russian planes turned around shortly after they did. This news is quickly forgotten, though, as the now mentally deranged Tyler finally snaps and attempts to shoot the pilots, declaring them to be cowards. The radar navigator and gunner try to wrestle him down, but he runs to the gunner's station and ejects, pulling the other two crew members out of the aircraft with him. Cassidy and Moreaux are now left by themselves, struggling to maintain control of their plane as the cabin decompresses.

The Looking Glass notices that Polar Bear 1 has abandoned its attack run, and Alice must report it to Condor. They also notice that the Russians have turned one of their own bomber squadrons in response. Alice begs Condor to view this as a sign that the Soviets are willing to call a ceasefire if the Americans stand down their own forces, and asks for permission to turn the other bombers around. But Condor, influenced by Colonel Fargo, is determined to win the war through complete destruction or surrender of the Soviet Union, and orders Alice to continue the attack and redirect another bomber to Polar Bear 1's target. He also orders Alice to shoot down the wayward B-52 as its crew are now traitors to the United States. When Alice hesitates, Fargo reminds Condor that they can issue the commands themselves from the E-4 if need be. Alice tells Condor that he should go ahead and give the orders himself, as he will no longer comply with Condor's wishes. Condor tells Alice he is fired, and cuts off communication with the Looking Glass.

A short time later, the real President of the United States, still in the FEMA shelter, manages to make contact with the Looking Glass. Alice sees this as a sign of hope and asks for the authentication codes, but the President lost his authenticator card in the helicopter crash. As Alice is about to disconnect, the President begs him to listen, calling him by his real name, Charlie. The President tells Charlie that if they work together, they will be able to stop the war before a final nuclear exchange destroys both the US and the Soviet Union. With Alice and his crew already branded as traitors by Condor, he decides to place his allegiance with the real President and orders his second in command to turn the remaining bombers around.

The crippled Polar Bear 1, now flying low somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, is intercepted by a pair of F-18 fighter jets from the USS Midway aircraft carrier. The fighter pilots relay to Cassidy and Moreaux that they have orders to either force them into a water landing and rescue or shoot them down. Cassidy tells Moreaux that she should eject and let the ship pick her up while he accepts the consequences for their actions by being shot down as a traitor. She decides that at this point, with all they've been through, she'd rather go down together. The fighter pilots drop back to begin their attack run, but are interrupted by a sudden radio outburst declaring that the USS Midway has been hit by a Russian torpedo and is sinking. The fighter pilots break off their attack, since they have nowhere to land now. Cassidy radios them and invites the two Navy pilots to join them in running away to a tropical island somewhere, but the fighter jets have already used up most of their fuel and will have to bail out soon. They wish Cassidy and Moreaux good luck and fly off to try and find a chance for survival.

Meanwhile, the President has managed to contact Condor aboard the E-4. As he tells Condor that they need to act quickly to call off the submarines and stop the war, Condor is put off by what he views as a sign of weakness and surrender, and questions the President's identity. Colonel Fargo steps in and says that the Russians have men trained to impersonate the President. The President tries to convince Condor that he is real by giving him the authentication codes (supplied to him by Alice), but Fargo counters this by claiming that the Russians probably intercepted their communications and have the codes now. Condor is torn for a few brief moments about what to believe, but then decides that the President he knew would never surrender, citing a speech he recently gave, and disconnects the President. Condor then summons Harpoon back to the command room and asks him what will happen if the submarines receive conflicting sets of orders with the same authentication codes. Harpoon, realizing what is happening, at first dodges the question, but eventually gives in and reveals that if the subs get conflicting orders, they will stick with their original orders to launch. Condor then dismisses the Admiral, but Harpoon stands in defiance, calling him insane for ignoring the Russians' clear sign of wanting to end the war by turning back their own bombers. When Condor dismisses him again, Harpoon snaps and tries to attack, but is wrestled to the ground by Secret Service bodyguards who draw their weapons. Harpoon begs them to shoot him, knowing that the discharge of firearms on the plane would lead to a forced emergency landing, but they do not.

The President and Alice discuss what can be done next. The President is ready to accept defeat and brace for the final nuclear exchange, but Alice has one last plan: use the Looking Glass to ram the E-4 and knock them out before Condor can send his orders to the TACAMO planes. He orders his pilot to stop avoiding the radiation clouds and make a straight line approach to the E-4's position, 120 miles away. The rest of his crew seems to accept this option and watches with anticipation as their plane gains ground on Condor. Fargo notices the Looking Glass gaining on them and, realizing what they plan to do, orders his pilot to also stop avoiding the radiation and evade them until the orders can be transmitted. The E-4 being the faster plane, and with the pilot being an experienced Air Force officer that Alice knows well, it seems that Looking Glass won't be able to catch them. But when the E-4's flight crew realizes what Condor and Fargo are about to do, they decide to sacrifice themselves, turning the E-4 into the path of the oncoming Looking Glass. Alice and the E-4 pilot salute each other through the cockpit windows, and the two planes collide, killing all on board. With the E-4 gone, the President is able to issue an order to the TACAMO planes: "Cease all hostilities. Maintain alert status." When no conflicting orders come through, the submarines stand down, and the war comes to an end.

The movie ends with Polar Bear 1 as it continues its flight in the aftermath of its mission. They encounter a thunderstorm which starts to short out their equipment due to the hole in their fuselage from Tyler's ejection. Cassidy goes back to turn off the power on the weapons station and put out the flames. Moreaux deals with two engine fires and eventually has to cut the power to those two engines. As they exit the storm, Moreaux asks Cassidy where they should go next, or if they will die as the plane runs out of fuel. Cassidy says he doesn't know, but adds "Welcome to tomorrow" as the B-52 flies over the ocean and into the sunrise. The fate of the two pilots is left unanswered. The final words on screen are a message that during the early months of 1990, Soviet renegades did in fact attack a nuclear facility, and that intelligence reports claimed the possible "compromise" of nuclear weapons from that facility (no specific incident is referenced, however). This message seems to be to show the viewers that the events depicted in the film could become a reality if the two nuclear superpowers were not careful.



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 film, the first being that the crisis in the novel is started by a deliberate Soviet attack to counter the US military buildup with which they are unable to compete.[6] The other major difference in the film is in the romantic subplot between Moreau and Cassidy, which is absent from the book, the characters themselves actually mocking 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]



  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]