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Film / By Dawn's Early Light

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A group of rogue agents in the Soviet military steal a nuclear missile and launch it at Ukraine from Turkey, tricking the USSR into a full-on counterattack against the West. Before the missiles land the mistake is discovered, but the American President's generals urge him to launch a counterattack. Bombers are launched and missile subs are put to sea. One of the nuclear alert bombers, a B-52G Stratofortress callsign Polar Bear One, takes off from Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington state moments before it's vaporized by an incoming Soviet missile. In the confusion, the president goes missing, triggering a succession crisis and threatening to escalate the conflict to apocalyptic levels.

The film was produced for HBO in 1990 and features several notable actors including James Earl Jones, Martin Landau, Rebecca De Mornay, and Rip Torn. It's also notable for being the last American World War III movie released before the dissolution of the Soviet Union the following year.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion:
  • Adaptational Context Change: The scene where CONDOR takes a moment to consider his options and pray is played differently in each version. In the book, it's a moment of him reinforcing his psychotic religious beliefs, while in the movie, CONDOR seems to be genuinely unsure of what do and is beseeching the Almighty for wisdom.
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • In the book, the Soviets deliberately attack the United States to deny them a clean win of the Cold War. In the film, they were tricked into attacking by rogue elements of their military.
    • Film!CONDOR is slightly more sympathetic than his book counterpart. In the book, he's a fundamentalist psycho who actively tries to escalate the war without regard for the lives it will cost to either side. In the movie, he's played as a bureaucrat who's in way over his head.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Kazaklis is renamed Cassidy in the film.
  • Adaptation Relationship Overhaul: In the book, Kazaklis and Moreau can barely stand each other, until they're forced to work together to survive. In the film, Cassidy and Moreau are in a sexual relationship, although they still have trouble working together. Amusingly in the book, they both consider the idea of having that kind of relationship, but are repulsed at the thought.
  • Beware My Stinger Tail: The B-52 has tail guns, as a MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor finds out the hard way.
  • Blinded by the Light: The President gets blinded when he sees the second Soviet warhead detonate over Washington DC. Captain Moreau's right eye gets seared by the flash of the blast over Fairchild AFB when she fails to close her blast curtain fast enough.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Trident missiles are prevented from launching, but tens or even hundreds of millions of people are dead.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The film and book end with Cassidy and Moreau desertingnote  and flying in their damaged B-52 south to try and reach some tropical islands. It's uncertain if they'll make it or run out fuel in the middle of the Pacific.
  • Continuous Decompression: After pulling his sidearm on the rest of the crew, Tyler sits down in a seat and pulls the ejection handle, resulting in a straight example.
  • Danger Deadpan: Shown on several occasions, but particularly by the F/A-18 Hornet pilots before and after (but not during) the destruction of Midway.
  • Decapitation Strike: Discussed and defied. The U.S. and Russia initially try to avoid killing each others leaders because only the President and Premier (or their legitimate successors) can negotiate a ceasefire. Without them, the automated procedures will take over and the war will continue until all life on Earth is extinguished.
  • Defcon 5: Not only does USAF General Renning use the "this is a drill" practice names for Defense Conditions COCKED PISTOL (DEFCON 1) and ROUND HOUSE (DEFCON 3); by going from COCKED PISTOL to ROUND HOUSE on his authority, Renning just ordered the reduction of defense readiness when there are Soviet nuclear missiles actively flying towards the United States at that moment! (Odd also is the board, the drill names are also present upon the prop instead of numbers and DEFCON 5 is named APPLE JACK instead of FADE OUT, DEFCON 4 is named SNOW MAN instead of DOUBLE TAKE, DEFCON 3 is named COCKED PISTOL instead of ROUND HOUSE, DEFCON 2 is ROUND HOUSE instead of FAST PACE, the movie's name for DEFCON 1 isn't named in dialog nor is it lit up on screen to be visible)
  • Despair Event Horizon: Tyler crosses it when Fairchild (and his wife and son) gets nuked. Several other characters cross it, or at least hang on the edge for much of the film.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: In the book, HARPOON is killed when he tries to crash the E-4. In the film, he's arrested instead and dies when the E-4 and LOOKING GLASS collide.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Tyler eventually commits suicide over the grief of losing his family in the attack on Fairchild. Unfortunately, in the process he kills everyone else except Cassidy and Moreau.
    • Subverted in the book with HARPOON. He tries to crash the E-4 to stop CONDOR, but is overpowered and killed before he can finish the job.
  • Dwindling Party:
    • Polar Bear One. One of the crewmen dies when the plane is struck by a nuclear shockwave, breaking his neck when he wasn't able to strap into his seat in time, and most of the rest of the crew die when the despondent navigator fires his ejection seat, causing everyone else to be sucked out of the plane. By the end of the film, only the pilots are left, in a damaged plane running low on fuel over the Pacific ocean.
    • In the book, the Secret Service detail sent to retrieve CONDOR. They leave the Baton Rouge office with a group of eight and by the time they bring CONDOR to the E-4, there are only two left. The rest are killed by rioters. (And in one poor bastard's case, CONDOR himself).
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the book, CONDOR shoots and kills one of the Secret Service agents sent to retrieve him and only identifies himself after the others start shooting back. He's a "shoot first and ask questions later" kind of guy. The movie skips this and introduces CONDOR as he's retrieved to the E-4, where one of his first lines sums up everything about his role in the story:
    CONDOR: Are we losing the war?
  • Evil Chancellor: Colonel Fargo becomes one to CONDOR after HARPOON is removed from command.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The entire story takes place over the course of about fifteen hours. But those fifteen house encompass World War III being fought with tens of millions of people being killed.
  • False Flag Attack: A ploy by Soviet military hardliners to seize power from the politburo kicks off the Third World War.
  • Face Death with Dignity:
    • The pilots of the E-4 salute LOOKING GLASS in the moments before the planes collide.
    • The staffers at Offutt AFB calmly watch their death approaching on the Big Board while Icarus says his goodbyes to ALICE and HARPOON.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Tyler grabs a photo of his son as he's running to board Polar Bear One and sticks it on his instrument panel when they get the order to launch. The ensuing death of his son when the base is nuked ultimately leads him to kill himself.
  • Fighter-Launching Sequence: Well, bomber launching. Polar Bear One's crew scrambles to get into the air as a nuclear warhead is about to strike their base. They narrowly escape in time.
  • The Film of the Book: It's an adaptation of William Prochnau's Trinity's Child. The film is mostly faithful to book, with a few changes here and there.
  • Gallows Humor: Cassidy starts letting fly with it as their situation gets worse. When asked by Moreau what he thinks will be left of the world, he replies "Worst case? Planet of the Apes, darlin'."
  • General Ripper:
    • In both version, Colonel Fargo, AKA the Librarian. He deliberately manipulates CONDOR into trying to escalate the war because of his anti-communist paranoia. In fact, in the book, he tries to bring about an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it nuclear exchange just to show up his now-dead superiors for ignoring him for years.
    • In the book, ICARUS. He's actually excited at finally getting to fight a nuclear war. A war in which he will assuredly die in the opening salvo.
  • Guy in Back: The B-52 has four of them (flight engineer, navigator, bombardier, and tail gunner), though none make it to the end.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: ALICE and the President agree that the only way to save the world is for ALICE to ram CONDOR's E-4 with the LOOKING GLASS EC-135. ALICE's crew agree without complaint. Once they realize what CONDOR is doing, the flight crew of the E-4 turn towards the pursing EC-135, allowing their aircraft to be rammed to stop the Secretary of the Interior from further escalating the war. The crews of both planes are killed but the war is brought to a halt.
  • Heroic Willpower: The President and Commander Sedgwick have this in spades. Despite being grievously injured after their helicopter crashes, they still manage to work through the pain to stop the war. Especially the President who was flashblinded by the nuke that took out D.C.
  • Hopeless War: HARPOON tries to explain to CONDOR that the war is pointless and both sides have already lost and the only thing they can do is stop the war before the entire world is annihilated. Colonel Fargo undercuts him and sells Condor 1950s era bullshit about the war being winnable and unfortunately CONDOR listens.
  • Hope Spot: Tyler invokes this when he picks up an FM radio station playing a Conway Twitty song, insisting that the whole thing must be an elaborate drill. By this point he is clearly in denial over the certain death of his family, as the crew have already witnessed the nuclear detonation that vaporized Fairchild AFB, and one of them was killed by the atmospheric shock wave.
  • It Has Been an Honor: The respective crews of the E-4 and EC-135 salute each other moments before the two airplanes collide.
  • Named by the Adaptation: For the film, the LIBRARIAN and ICARUS are called Colonel Fargo and General Redding respectively.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: In the book, the unnamed President is pretty clearly supposed to be Ronald Reagan, even though Reagan is mentioned to have been one of his predecessors. The unnamed Secretary of State is implied to be Alexander Haig.
  • No Kill like Overkill:
    • With two MiG-25 Foxbats chasing Polar Bear One, who are staying out of range from the B-52's defensive rear guns, after one of the enemy MiGs got shot down flying too close behind the bomber; the bomber crew drops one of their nukes in a last-ditch attempt to take them out, while ducking behind a nearby mountain range to avoid the blast. It works.
    • In the book, the E-4 has to dodge a dozen nearly simultaneous nuclear blasts after escaping Baton Rouge with CONDOR, the result of a Soviet missile sub firing its entire payload in an attempt to kill CONDOR. HARPOON, himself a former submariner, speculates the Soviet captain had been cornered by American hunter killer subs and decided to go down swinging.
  • No Name Given: It's actually easier to list the people who are given names. Apart from Colonel Fargo, Commander Sedgwick, and the crew of Polar Bear One, everyone else goes by their rank, codename, or title.
  • Must Have Nicotine: ALICE has been trying to quit, but the stress of the current situation requires tobacco. As it gets worse, he specifically demands nonfiltered smokes.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The director of the FEMA facility where the President is taken after his helicopter crashes, who prevents the Soviet premier from contacting the President. The President is not amused, even though the director points out that, in all the chaos, he had no way of confirming the premier's identity.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • The reaction of SAC Commanding Officer Redding and the whole room when the computer screens indicate the missile they've been tracking explodes in a nuclear detonation over a Soviet Union city.
    Female Soldier: Oh my God!
    • The crew of Polar Bear One are all stunned when they are ordered to scramble and realize it's not a training exercise, it's a valid launch order.
    • In the book, the President is horrified when he's informed the military have sworn in the Secretary of the Interior as his successor. Mostly because the President knows the Secretary is a religious fundamentalist and political hack, good qualities for a hatchet man, not so great for a guy who needs to negotiate a ceasefire.
  • Only Sane Man: HARPOON quickly becomes this among the staff aboard the E-4. The flight crew of that same aircraft also exhibit this quality at a crucial time.
  • President Evil: Zig-zagged. In the confusion of nuclear war, the President is incapacitated and incorrectly assumed to be dead. The only person in the line of succession who can be found is the Secretary of the Interior, who is much more bloodthirsty than the actual president, who is depicted as levelheaded and highly competent.
  • Ramming Always Works: To stop the Secretary of the Interior from launching the submarine-based Trident missiles and killing even more people, General "ALICE" orders the pilots of LOOKING GLASS to ram the E-4. As it happens, LOOKING GLASS can't catch up with the E-4 until the other planes' crew decides to help close the distance.
  • Sanity Slippage: In the book, HARPOON slowly loses it from the stress of the war and his horror at realizing how badly he screwed up by swearing in CONDOR.
    • Lieutenant Tyler, the B-52 navigator, is stricken with grief over his wife and young son back at Fairchild. After the initial shock, he goes into denial, then becomes increasingly irrational until finally taking his own life and accidentally killing two crewmates in the process.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Moreau aboard Polar Bear One, eventually convincing Major Cassidy, ALICE aboard LOOKING GLASS, and HARPOON aboard the E-4.
  • Shoot the Dog: The government and military have to do some unsavory things to ensure the survival of the President and CONDOR, so they can hopefully negotiate a ceasefire. Things like shooting panicking civilians to prevent them from rushing Marine One and the E-4 and having the E-4 run over the Army soldiers protecting the Baton Rouge airport because the plane can't afford to wait for them to move.
  • Shouting Shooter: Tech Sergeant Hooker, the tail gunner of Polar Bear One, shouts profanities as he engages the Soviet interceptors with his .50-cal machine guns, and soon progresses to just shouting incoherently apart from the word "motherfucker." A slightly unusual example in that he is operating his guns remotely and tracking his targets via rear-facing radar and gun camera, since the B-52G and H models moved the tail gunner's position from the tail to the main cockpit.
  • Spanner in the Works: The Chinese. The Soviets didn't take them into account when they attacked the United States and the Chinese strike on the Soviets accidentally causes the war to escalate.
  • Succession Crisis: The United States ends up with two conflicting chief executives, the President and CONDOR; normally, CONDOR would defer to the President once he is confirmed to be alive, but CONDOR, mad with paranoia, is convinced that the President is an impersonator and refused to turn authority over. Eventually the problem is solved when the LOOKING GLASS rams the E-4.
  • Take This Job and Shove It: ALICE pretty much says this when he refuses to carry out CONDOR's orders.
  • Talking through Technique: After the initial nuclear exchange all electronic communication is severed, making it impossible for the American and Russian leaders to speak to each other. HARPOON urges CONDOR to recall some of their bombers, which the Russians will see via their radar, as a way of signaling America's willingness to end the conflict and hoping the Russians reciprocate. CONDOR refuses, but Polar Bear One gives up on their mission and turns back and the Russians do indeed follow suit.
  • Too Dumb to Live: In the book, the Secretary of State is enraged that the President hasn't order a full-scale retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union, so he tries to grab a gun and shoot the President. He does this while the President is surrounded by heavily armed, jumpy Marines and Secret Service agents, who all blow him away.
  • Unexpected Successor: With the President and most of the line of succession missing and presumed dead after Washington gets vaporized, the Secretary of the Interior becomes the acting president. Note that in the book it's mentioned he's not the senior living successor, just the one the military can safely extract.
  • World War III: Of the limited nuclear war variety.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: CONDOR thinks he need to be a Harry Truman-esque president who is uncompromising and unwilling to stop the war until total victory is achieved. But as HARPOON tries to explain, what the world really needs is a president who recognizes the war is unwinnable and sue for a ceasefire.
  • You Are in Command Now: The whole point of the command planes. LOOKING GLASS will take over command and control of the strategic forces after Offutt goes and E-4 tracks down the seemingly appropriate presidential successor.