By Dawn’s Early Light (also known as 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.
In the late 1980s, a group of dissident officials in the Soviet Union has grown afraid of losing power as relations improve with the United States. Hoping to oust the Soviet President, they steal a nuclear missile and launch it at the Soviet city of Donetsk from a site in NATO member Turkey. The Soviet automated defence systems, believing a NATO attack is in progress, execute a measured launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at the United States.
As the stolen missile detonates over Donetsk and destroys the city, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) scrambles its forces. SAC Commander General Renning urges the President of the United States to authorise a full counterattack.
The Soviet leader contacts his American counterpart, explaining the dissidents’ actions. He asks the US to stand down, but he is willing to accept an American counterstrike if it is exactly equal to the Soviet’s first strike, costing each side six to nine million people. If the United States launches an all-out attack, the Soviets will respond in kind, dooming the whole planet.
The President and General Renning argue about the message from the Soviet leader until it appears that the Soviets have launched a second attack. The President authorises a multi-part all-out attack, with American ICBMs launched immediately, then submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in a few hours, coincident with the arrival of USAF bombers over the Soviet Union. General Renning issues the orders just before the first wave hits SAC headquarters, then quickly passes command of SAC to “Alice”, the code name of a USAF General in command of “Looking Glass”, a flying command aircraft for the Air Force and the Navy. The President is ushered to Marine One. As the helicopter lifts off, he learns that the second Soviet attack was not directed at the United States but rather at the People’s Republic of China. This country has launched its own missiles at the Soviet Union, adding untold millions of deaths in those two countries. Realising his mistake, the President tries to cancel his orders for the all-out nuclear retaliation, but before he can, a nearby nuclear detonation knocks his helicopter out of the sky.
A B-52 bomber, callsign “Polar Bear 1”, takes flight just minutes before an ICBM wipes out Fairchild Air Force Base. The bomber is piloted by Major Cassidy and his female co-pilot Captain Moreau. The crewmen are shaken by the unfolding events, with Tyler struggling with the fact that his family was just killed at Fairchild. While flying, a nuclear warhead detonates close to “Polar Bear 1”, the nuclear flash half blinds Moreau, and the ensuing shockwave throws a crewman into his instrument panel, breaking his neck and killing him.
An American Admiral, code named “Harpoon”, is in command of Nightwatch, a flying command platform for the President. With the President presumed dead, they swear in the Secretary of the Interior as the new President, code named “Condor”. Harpoon informs Condor of the last communication from the Soviet President, the mistake regarding China, the matching damage already done by the initial retaliation with American ICBMs, and advises that the United States agree to the ceasefire. Colonel Fargo, a hawkish advisor on Nightwatch, who believes that the Soviets are playing a trick, advises Condor that the only path to victory is quick destruction of the Soviet Union.
Polar Bear 1 is attacked by a trio of MiG-25’s over Alaska. One is shot down by the B-52’s rear machine guns. The crew then drop one of their nuclear bombs on one side of a mountain range, using the other side of the mountain to shield their plane from the blast, destroying the other two MiG-25’s.
Condor agrees with Col. Fargo’s plan to move forward with a submarine missile and bomber attack. Harpoon disagrees, and he attempts to hide his nuclear authentication codes, but they are forcibly taken by Col. Fargo. Fargo and Condor contact Alice, giving the authentication codes and ordering him to execute the remainder of the attack plan. Alice advises against this course of action, but obeys his orders and begins to organise the bombers for the attack.
The attack orders are received by Polar Bear 1. Moreau argues that their target will kill off all Soviet leadership, leaving nobody to “turn [the war] off”. Cassidy hands her a suicide pill, but then he breaks down and begs her not to go. The crewmen agree to turn back, but Tyler, despondent over the loss of his family, displays increasingly erratic behaviour with the news causing him to descend into full insanity. Tyler attacks Cassidy over the news and has to be restrained as a result. He later attempts to shoot the pilots for cowardice, then uses an ejection seat, blowing everyone but the two pilots out of the aircraft.
The original President has survived the crash of Marine One, but he is seriously injured with both legs broken and he is also blind. A family gets him to a FEMA emergency shelter. By way of a FEMA communication system, he learns what Condor is doing, then manages to contact the Soviet President. The Soviets promise to stand off for one hour to see if the US Air Force will recall its bombers.
On board Looking Glass, Alice notices that Polar Bear 1 has abandoned its attack run, and sees that the Soviets have turned one of their own bomber squadrons back in response. Alice begs Condor to view this as a sign that the Soviets are willing to call a ceasefire and asks for permission to recall all American bombers. Condor instead orders Alice to send US Navy carrier-based fighters to shoot down Polar Bear 1. When Alice hesitates, Fargo informs Condor that they can figure a way to send the launch commands from Nightwatch, at which point Condor dismisses Alice and cuts off communication with Looking Glass.
The original President contacts Alice. He lost his authentication codes in the helicopter crash, but he calls Alice by his real name as proof of who he is. Alice and the staff of Looking Glass agree to follow the real President’s orders and they order a recall of the bombers with the Soviets following suit. However, Alice lacks the authority to call off the submarine attack.
Two American carrier-based F/A-18 fighter jets intercept the crippled Polar Bear 1, now flying low over the Pacific Ocean. As the fighters begin their attack runs, they receive word that their ship has been hit by a Soviet torpedo and it is sinking. Doomed to run out of fuel in the open ocean, they bid Polar Bear 1 good luck, unwilling to doom their fellow American pilots alongside them.
The real President finally connects with Condor. Condor doubts it is him and Col. Fargo suggests that it is a Soviet impersonator. Condor states that the President he knew would want a military victory, and disconnects. Fearing the “President impersonator” might try to cancel the American SLBM launch, Condor orders the Nightwatch staff to find a way to connect to the US Navy submarines which they succeed in doing by linking to Soviet satellites.
The Looking Glass staff and crewmen agree with Alice’s decision to ram Looking Glass into Nightwatch, before Condor can send his launch orders. Looking Glass had been flying to rendezvous with Nightwatch for some time, and now makes all effort to close the remaining gap. Fargo realises what Looking Glass is doing, so Condor orders his pilot to fly evasively until the launch orders can be transmitted. Realising what Condor and Fargo plan to do, the pilots of Nightwatch sacrifice themselves, turning their aircraft into the path of the oncoming Looking Glass rather than allow Condor and Fargo to escalate the war. Once the two planes are destroyed, the real President successfully issues a message to stand down on the American attack.
Having survived with low fuel in Polar Bear 1, Cassidy and Moreau are left wondering what happens next, but recognise that now there will be a future for everyone to figure it out. A title card states that “in the early months of 1990, during ethnic unrest in the southern part of the Soviet Union, insurgent units attacked a Soviet Army facility. Western intelligence received reliable reports that nuclear weapons on the premises were compromised.”
- Powers Boothe as Major Cassidy, USAF – pilot of the B-52 bomber “Polar Bear 1”.
- Rebecca De Mornay as Captain Moreau, USAF – copilot of “Polar Bear 1”.
- James Earl Jones as USAF general Charlie in command of the EC-135 “Looking Glass” – callsign “Alice”.
- Martin Landau as President of the United States.
- Darren McGavin as US Secretary of the Interior on the Boeing E-4 NEACP aircraft – callsign “Condor”.
- Rip Torn as Colonel Fargo, USA – Army military advisor in the E-4.
- Jeffrey DeMunn as USN admiral aboard the E-4 – callsign “Harpoon”.
- Peter MacNicol as LCDR Sedgwick, USN – President’s Emergency War Orders officer.
- Nicolas Coster as General Renning, USAF, at SAC headquarters – callsign “Icarus”.
- Ken Jenkins as a USAF Colonel Sam aboard Looking Glass.
- Richard Speight Jr. as a USAF guard.
- Principal photography took place from August 7 to late September 1989.
- 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.
- 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.
- The other major difference in the film is the romantic subplot between Moreau and Cassidy, which is absent in the book; the characters there actually ridicule the idea of such a relationship between them.
- In 1990, James Earl Jones was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Special and Matte World Digital won for Outstanding Achievement in Special Visual Effects.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Jack Sholder.
- Producer(s): Bruce Gilbert, Thomas M. Hammel, and Susan Moore.
- Writer(s): Bruce Gilbert (teleplay) and William Prochnau (novel).
- Music: Trevor Jones and Paul Hulme.
- Cinematography: Alexander Gruszynski.
- Editor(s): Tony Lombardo.
- Production: Paravision International and HBO Pictures.
- Distributor(s): HBO.
- Release Date: 24 April 1990.
- Running time: 100 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.