Follow TV Tropes


Film / By Dawn's Early Light

Go To
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, a B-52 named 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: This isn't the first time that James Earl Jones has had a hand in World War III
  • 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.
  • Advertisement:
  • Adaptation Name Change: Kazaklis is renamed Cassidy in the film.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Trident missiles are prevented from launching, but tens or even hundreds of millions of people are dead.
  • Continuous Decompression: Tyler blows his escape hatch, resulting in a straight example.
  • Defcon Five: Not only does USAF General Redding 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, Redding just ordered the reduction of defense readiness when there are Soviet nuclear missiles actively flying towards the United States at that moment!
  • 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.
    • Advertisement:
    • 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, and most of the rest of the crew die when a despondent crewman 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.
  • False Flag Attack: A ploy by the Soviet military to seize power 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.
  • 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.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The flight crew of the E-4 turn towards the pursing Looking Glass, 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.
  • Named by the Adaptation: For the film, the Librarian and Icarus are called Colonel Fargo and General Redding respectively.
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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. 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.
  • Uncertain Doom: The film and book end with Cassidy and Moreau deserting and flying 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.
  • Unexpected Successor: With the President 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.
  • 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.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: