October 27, 1974 was a red-letter day in Columbo history: it was the day Patrick McGoohan made his series’ debut in By Dawn’s Early Light.
Yes folks, the dear Lieutenant’s 28th outing would pit him against one of the most iconic guest star adversaries in the show’s proud history, all set against the austere backdrop of the Haynes Military Academy.
On paper, this is all terribly exciting. But does Early Light live up to the hype? Or to put it another way, is it a full-blooded hero of an episode, or the televisual equivalent of a pathetic Boodle Boy? And are we ready to find out?
SIR, YES SIR!
Then read on!
BOODLE BOY: Robert Clotworthy
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Colonel Lyle C. Rumford: Patrick McGoohan
William Haynes: Tom Simcox
Cadet Springer: Mark Wheeler
Captain Loomis: Burr DeBenning
Sergeant Kramer: Bruce Kirby
Cadet Morgan: Bruno Kirby
Miss Brady: Madeleine Sherwood
Written by: Howard Berk
Directed by: Harvey Hart
Episode synopsis: Columbo By Dawn’s Early Light
A lone, sweaty man is hard at toil in the crude kitchenette of a no-frills homestead. The nature of the work? Tampering with explosives! The mystery man tips gunpowder from a 75mm shell and adheres a ring of putty-like substance to the inside of the casing before replacing the projectile’s cover and washing the powder down the sink.
He dresses in an army uniform and silently slips out into the lightening dawn. He takes the shell and returns it to a locked case in the armoury before strolling out to a vintage French 75mm cannon and surreptitiously pushes a cloth down the barrel. Turning to leave the scene, he stops. His view centres on a jar of CIDER hanging in a dormitory window, which he can just make out through a small gap in the trees. A look of thunder that suggests someone is going to pay flickers over his face as he takes an about turn and strides away.
A bugle sounding reveille breaks the silence and a nervous, fresh-faced lad knocks of the door of the army man’s abode. It’s BOODLE BOY MILLER (Woooooooooooooooooooo!), who’s poor geometry skillz appear to have landed him the unenviable role of lackey to the cannon-corrupting Colonel Lyle C. Rumford for the rest of the semester.
And while the coffee he’s delivering meet’s Rumford’s approval, the state of his shoes does not. It’s Founder’s Day, you see, the most important date on the calendar of the Haynes Military Academy, and certainly not a day to scrimp on the shoe shine. “How do you explain those shoes, Miller?” the Colonel barks. “Those shoes are a disgrace. Following this morning’s ceremonies you will report to my office for discipline.” The Boodle Boy sags like a limp lettuce and trails away to an uncertain future…
The Colonel remains in combative mood after arriving at his office to meet a special guest. That guest of honour at Founder’s Day is none other than William Haynes, grandson of the academy patriarch, who has had a fractious relationship with Rumford since his own days as a ‘poor cadet’ some 20 years prior.
Haynes has his heart set on shutting down the academy and replacing it with a co-ed junior college – something that Rumford vehemently objects to. But Haynes’ mind is made up. The academy is failing, despite its proud history. Capacity is 6000 cadets. There are just 1100 enrolled. “The truth is nobody wants to play soldier anymore. The war’s over,” says Haynes.
“The shoe-shamed Boodle Boy sags like a limp lettuce and trails away to an uncertain future.”
“It’s never over, William. There are too many people set on destroying our country,” the Colonel returns, evenly. “And that is why institutions like this academy cannot be allowed to die.”
The two trade barbs, with Rumford leaving his office door ajar to allow busybody secretary Miss Brady to overhear. Rumford goads Haynes into presiding over the Founder’s Day ceremony by telling him he’s not welcome and should beat it off campus ASAP. Haynes takes the bait like a trooper. He will not play a background role – he’ll be front and centre and will fire the ceremonial cannon shot to commence the day’s festivities. In seizing the opportunity to hurt Rumford, Haynes has sealed his own fate.
We now cut to the pageantry of the day. Cadets dressed like toy soldiers march on parade, brass band tunes a-blaring. The cannon is prepped to fire, rigged shell and all, and Haynes strides out to meet his destiny. One yank of the cord and KABLAMO! William Haynes is splashed all over the parade ground.
Predictably Lieutenant Columbo is amongst the officers sent to investigate. And just as predictably he’s mistaken for a meddling onlooker by Rumford, who asks Sergeant Kramer to remove him from the crime scene. Word on the street is that this was a tragic accident. The old cannon – a relic from the First World War – had simply fired one shot too many. William Haynes was in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing more to it than that.
It’s only Columbo who’s not buying into the popular viewpoint. He finds a piece of the exploded cannon barrel with a thread attached. Subsequent searching leads him to find an oily rag beneath a patrol car. Looks like it must have come from the cannon. But what can it mean?
Columbo makes a beeline for Rumford, who is seated in academy chapel with hundreds of cadets to hear the hastily-arranged prayer service. Columbo shows the rag to Rumford, asking what it might be. A little too quickly Rumford claims not to have the slightest idea. But when he hears that Columbo will take it to the lab he takes a closer look and suggests it could be a rag used to clean the cannon.
Of course, were it to be left in the barrel it could have caused an explosion, but the Colonel suggests that’s unlikely to happen at an academy of such standing. Nevertheless, the two head to Rumford’s office to check files to see which of the bungling cadets might be responsible.
One lad who isn’t to blame is BOODLE BOY Miller. He’s nervously waiting for the Colonel’s return and when Rumford shows a softer side by patting his shoulder and letting him off, he first flinches like a wimp, then skips off as gleefully as a gambolling puppy. Yes folks, everything’s coming up Milhouse Miller! Although tragically for the viewer, the cleft-chinned cadet figures in the case no further. SAD FACE.
A search of the files reveals that one Cadet Springer had been on cannon cleaning detail – and that he’s a poor cadet with a number of demerits on record. The Colonel concedes that if any cadet could have made such a gaffe as to leave a cleaning rag in a cannon, Springer would be that cadet.
As Columbo heads off to question the youth, Captain Mainwaring, I mean Loomis bustles in and is given a proper down-dressing by his superior officer, who berates him for allowing hard cider to be brewed under his nose in Pershing Hall and orders him to deliver the culprits. The harassed Loomis scats as sheepishly as the Boodle Boy doubtless expected to just moments earlier.
Columbo attempts to make light of the cider infraction. “I guess boys will be boys,” he says with a smile. “Boys will be boys, Lieutenant,” Rumford deadpans back. “But someone’s got to turn them in to men.”
On his way to Pershing Hall, Columbo catches up with his fellow officers, all waiting impatiently to be dismissed. They pass the Lieutenant a blueprint that they recovered from Haynes’ car, which will be an important clue later in the episode.
Finding Springer alone in his dormitory room, Columbo hands him the cloth he found, which the cadet instantly identifies as a cleaning rag due to the gun oil on it. Springer repeatedly rejects any insinuation that he might have left the rag in the cannon, and also explains that it’s considered an honour detail to clean the cannon – a concept that puzzles Columbo given that Springer has a track record of underachiving.
The Colonel explains away this apparent discrepancy over a rudimentary dinner in the mess hall. Sometimes giving an honour detail to a troublesome cadet can buck them up, he says. Columbo, for his part, says that he thinks Springer is holding something back, but that he believes he didn’t leave the rag in the cannon because he identified it so quickly.
With his wife visiting her mother in Fresno, Columbo decides to spend the night at the academy to continue his investigations. Woken at 3am with a racing mind, Columbo wanders to a phone booth and rings campus security guard, Officer Corso, who had earlier told him that the fateful cannon explosion had been heard 8 miles away at Westlake. Yet the cannon is fired every day at sundown. So why only this time was it heard from so far away?
The shirty officer has no other explanation other than ‘the cannon never exploded before’, which doesn’t satisfy the Lieutenant but there’s no other course of action open to him than to slink back to bed…
He gets a rude awakening at reveille the next morning as an energetic young cadet springs into his room, cracks his behind and bellows ‘Up and at ’em trooper!’ While freshening up, the bleary-eyed detective notices some dust on the side of the sink. Looking up to the air vent he can see that’s where the dust was from. In a mere moment, he’s cracked the cider mystery that continues to elude the hapless Loomis.
His next meeting with Rumford comes on the parade ground later that morning. He has interesting news: a ballistics investigation has revealed traces of gelignite in the breech of the cannon. The supposed blank shell has been tampered with, and that means murder, pure and simple. But who’s guilty? He doesn’t suspect Springer, so has next to nothing to go on.
The problem of the blueprint is the next thing to vex Columbo. It just doesn’t tally up with the current building layout. Why build a new gym, for example, when there’s a perfectly good one already? It’s at this point that Loomis informs him that Springer has gone AWOL and to put out an APB. Columbo assures him he will, but instead he goes about investigating the crime his way.
He’s already figured out that Springer has a girlfriend from the nearby Valley High School after noticing the pledge ring he wore on a chain round his neck. Tracking down Springer’s love interest Susan, Columbo tails her to Springer’s hideaway and overhears the lad’s concerns that he’s been set up. Revealing himself, Columbo asks them to spill the beans.
Cut to Rumford’s office. Columbo is with Springer and they drop a proverbial bombshell on the Colonel. Springer couldn’t have left the rag in the cannon. Why? Because he didn’t clean the cannon the night before. Moreover, he was OFF CAMPUS that night. While he won’t say where he was (in Susan’s arms, no doubt), Columbo verifies the alibi. Springer is out of the running for the Academy’s Murder of the Year Award!
“Springer couldn’t have left the rag in the cannon. Why? Because he didn’t clean the cannon the night before.”
Springer is confined to quarters and dismissed, but Columbo’s now got the scent and bombards Rumford with questions. It’s starting to look like Rumford was the target of the cannon rigging. Who would do such a thing? A wronged cadet? A love rival? A disgruntled war vet? Rumford rejects all possibilities. So if he wasn’t the target, Columbo thinks aloud, then William Haynes must have been. So who would want to kill him?
Their next discussion, later that day, regards the mystery blueprint. Columbo is puzzled why a bathroom on the plan has no urinals if it’s a male-only military academy. As a result, Rumford comes clean about Haynes’ plans to turn the place into a co-ed junior college. However, he says it was nothing but a ‘crackpot scheme’ that the board of trustees is dead against (contrary to what Haynes told us earlier in the episode).
Rumford’s immediate focus, however, is on catching the CIDER ROGUES! So in the small hours of the night he orders a snap inspection of Pershing Hall, requiring all the cadets, and a sleepy Lieutenant Columbo, to fall out.
Every room is checked to no avail. Finally Rumford orders Loomis to check the latrine and to investigate the air vent. The cadets are on tenterhooks – but the cider isn’t there! They can’t understand it until Columbo wanders in and takes them into his confidence. He’ll keep quiet about the cider, but he needs to know everything about it.
As dawn breaks, Loomis calls Rumford and invites him to the parade ground. It’s about the cider! Meeting at the cannon, Loomis points to the cider hanging in same window where Rumford saw it on the fateful morning.
Loomis is sent galloping off to get the second floor to fall out as Columbo makes his way over and finds time to grill Rumford about precisely when he last saw the cider. Night or day? Weekday or weekend? The Colonel is stuttering in his replies, but adopts a masterful tone when the weary cadets are lined up in front of him.
When he orders the culprits to identify themselves, though, Columbo steps in. “All cadets remain where you are!” he shouts, much to the ire of the Colonel who isn’t used to having an order countermanded. However, the game’s up.
Columbo lays down the law. The only person who ever saw the cider hanging in the window was Rumford. The only night it was ever left out to ferment was Saturday night. It was brought in at 6.25am, before reveille, to avoid it being seen, and it would have been too dark to have seen it before 6.15am. The only place on the academy it could have been seen from was the cannon – and that places Rumford at the cannon on the morning William Haynes died.
For the embattled Colonel, the war is finally over. He admits the deed, but with no contrition. In his opinion, it had to be done to protect American interests. Columbo allows Rumford one last opportunity to dismiss the cadets before he surrenders to the detective as credits roll…
Early Light‘s best moment: the companiable chat
I wanted to include Boodle Boy here, but McGoohan’s excellence during his companiable chat with Columbo really warrants the highest praise. One suspects there isn’t a lot of small talk and bonhomie in Rumford’s life, and that’s what makes his honest and friendly exchange with the detective in his palatial office all the more memorable.
As well as providing us with insight into Rumford’s absolute commitment to US national interests, we’re also given a hint of the man behind the uniform, the man who would hang up that uniform and tend his roses if wars didn’t need to be fought. It’s a humanising scene for Rumford, strangely sad, and one that I suspect quietly impresses Columbo, who has a soft spot for excellence and dedication in others regardless of their crimes (think Adrian Carsini and Tommy Brown).
“It’s a humanising scene for Rumford, strangely sad, and one that I suspect quietly impresses Columbo.”
Rumford is candid enough to offer the Lieutenant a quality cigar and even becomes the first character (I think) to overtly ask whether Columbo has a first name. “I do,” the detective concedes. “My wife is about the only one that uses it.”
A quiet, underplayed scene then, but one which I take considerable pleasure in viewing. McGoohan might have won his subsequent Emmy Award for this scene alone.
My take on By Dawn’s Early Light
Patrick McGoohan casts a large shadow over Columbo. He would ultimately play a Columbo killer more often than any other actor – 4 times – and would also have multiple writing and directing credits to his name over the ensuing quarter of a century. Amazing, then, that we’re nearly two thirds of the way through the original series’ run by the time he makes his debut here.
As a comparison, Robert Culp had wrapped up his trio of murderous appearances a season earlier, while Jack Cassidy already had two killer credits under his belt. Who could have predicted that McGoohan, then, would have such an enduring relationship with the show and with its leading man, Peter Falk?
What’s more remarkable is that this is such an atypical McGoohan performance. He plays it so straight and is so restrained as Colonel Lyle C. Rumford that it could be a different actor entirely than the more eccentric, more ‘McGoohan’ roles he subsequently played in Columbo – notably in the bonkers Identity Crisis a year later, where McGoohan appeared to have a carte blanche to mould his character, and the whole episode (he directed) in his preferred style.
It’s a quite marvellous, understated performance by McGoohan as Rumford, who appears to be playing a character a good deal older than his own 45 years at time of filming. He entirely succeeds in giving us a multi-layered character of great depth and intrigue. It would be easy to have made a military academy leader one-dimensional, and with lesser writing and a lesser actor we could have been given a forgettable villain. That’s definitely not the case here.
McGoohan would go on to remember his Columbo debut very fondly, saying: “That’s probably my favourite [of the three Columbo episodes he was involved in in the 70s]. It might be my favourite role in the United States. It took a bit of work, but I thought it was excellent. It was on the basis of that experience that I agreed to do the others.”
“It’s a quite marvellous performance by McGoohan, who entirely succeeds in giving us a multi-layered character of great depth and intrigue.”
Let’s examine McGoohan’s Rumford more closely. Firstly, as the authority figure, the military man who makes others dance to the beat of his drum, he’s on the money. Cadet Springer aside, the rest of the Academy respects and fears him in equal measure. He’s a stickler for discipline and God help those who step out of line on his watch, because they’re going to be in for a world of hurt.
Then we must consider Rumford’s devious, strategic mind. He’s clearly been planning the downfall of William Haynes for a long time, using Springer’s poor disciplinary record as a vehicle and smokescreen for committing murder. Consider: Springer was placed on cannon cleaning duty 3 weeks before the crime occurred. Rumford was able to plausibly claim that this ‘honour detail’ was given to Springer as a means of boosting his morale, while at the same time being able to perfectly use the cadet’s known foibles to portray him as a highly likely candidate to have caused the cannon explosion through simple carelessness.
Sure, it’s pretty unethical for him to use Springer as a fall guy this way, but looking from Rumford’s perspective as a military leader, he’s shrewdly using what resources he has available to him to achieve his vision of victory. And that victory is safeguarding the future of the academy by eliminating Haynes and his co-ed plans, and by association safeguarding the US against foreign aggressors. That’s clever work.
Detractors might say that it’s pretty convenient that Haynes would rise to the bait and seal his own fate by presiding over the ceremonial cannon shot on Founder’s Day. After all, this is a duty that Rumford always carries out, and for the episode to work Haynes had to take the bait. I prefer to look at it from the perspective of Rumford really knowing his enemy (he had, after all, overseen Haynes’ own cadetship years before) and knowing what buttons to push to trigger him into a fatal mistake.
That’s all well and good, but McGoohan’s greatest triumph is in making Rumford a strangely sympathetic figure, despite his total lack of contrition for his crime. This is achieved through knowing that Rumford’s motive had national interests at heart, but more powerfully through his interactions with Columbo, which go some way to revealing what type of man he is when not in uniform.
During the companiable discussion outlined above, we learn that Rumford isn’t a bloodthirsty tyrant who terrifies weedy recruits for kicks or to boost his ego. He deeply cares about his country and wants to ensure the US Army has the best possible recruits to keep the country safe – ‘no more mama’s boys’, as he himself puts it. This is the life he has chosen, placing US interests above all else, including, it seems, his own.
“McGoohan’s greatest triumph is in making Rumford a strangely sympathetic figure, despite his total lack of contrition.”
Instead we see hints that Rumford is a lonely, isolated man with no love or fun in his life. There’s no Mrs Rumford, nor any suggestion that romance has ever been high on his agenda. He speaks of his rose garden at home that he’d be happy to tend if only there were no more wars to prepare for. It’s really quite sad. And that’s the crux of the Rumford character: he’s driven by discipline and duty. Everything else comes second. In that sense he’s like a more pleasant, nuanced forerunner to Jack Nicholson’s braying Colonol Jessup from A Few Good Men.
All credit to writer Howard Berk for giving us a villain the majority of viewers can at least understand, even if they don’t openly like. Columbo’s opinion of Rumford seems to be just what the balanced viewer’s would be. The respect he affords the Colonel at episode’s end, when he allows him to address his cadets one last time is, in its own way, as kind an act as his toast with Adrian Carsini at the conclusion of Any Old Port in a Storm.
Falk and McGoohan clearly hit it off on set. That much is evident in the later faith Falk placed in McGoohan as a Columbo co-star, writer and director. Both men admired the other’s approach to acting, and even if there’s little actual mirth in their exchanges in By Dawn’s Early Light, the seeds were sown for what would be a long and fruitful relationship.
Would Early Light have been so restrained had it not been McGoohan’s debut? We can only speculate, but must give due props to director Harvey Hart, who successfully delivered a Columbo quite like no other.
Rather like A Friend in Deed, this is an episode apart in many ways. It’s very quiet, with long interludes of near silence broken by sounds and conversation – particularly at the start when the Colonel is rigging the shell. There’s no musical score at all. Indeed the only music in the episode is that which is provided by the cadets on the drill field. This, combined with the location shooting and lack of humour, gives the episode a very different ‘feel’ to the average Columbo. It’s much more like a standalone movie in fact.
This treatment makes sense. After all, war is hell and the spectre of Vietnam hangs over this episode like a pall. As Haynes himself puts it: ‘No one wants to play soldier anymore,’ – a sentiment that ran deep across the nation at the time. As a result, this is a serious representation of serious subject matter and lacks a lot of the little humorous asides that have become a hallmark for the series.
There are some cute scenes, though. The wimpy Boodle Boy and zero-authoritaire Captain Loomis raise smiles, while Columbo’s rude awakening when he gets his bum cracked by that young cadet while reveille is still ringing in his ears is a fun moment. There are some nice fish-out-of-water scenes, too, as a baffled Columbo struggles to get a word out of straight-armed cadets running like dorks around campus, and is bewildered by first year cadets eating ‘square meals’ in the mess hall.
We’re also treated to Bruce Kirby’s first turn as Sergeant Kramer, a workaday detective who here seems rather impatient with Columbo’s methods. Kramer would return in 5 subsequent episodes, making him the series’ single most recurring character aside from Columbo and Dog. Kirby also had the pleasure of sharing screen-time here with his son Bruno (of City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally fame), who starred as cider-brewing conspirator Cadet Morgan.
In terms of lighthearted aspects, that’s about all we get. Whether this hurts the episode depends entirely on your point of view. For all its artfulness and weighty drama, just how enjoyable is By Dawn’s Early Light when compared to the very best instalments in the Columbo opus? I find that harder to quantify.
“By Dawn’s Early Light is certainly compelling viewing, but it’s very straight-faced.”
I like to refer to Peter Falk’s own comments on what makes for a vintage Columbo. For him, it’s about achieving ‘the perfect balance between being both compelling and amusing’. I concur. Early Light is certainly compelling, but it’s very straight-faced. And because of that, for me at least, it’s less enjoyable to watch than my absolute, dependable favourites.
The pace of the episode is also something I can see being an issue for some viewers. It’s a veeeeeeeery slow episode, which never really picks up speed and the co-ed plan blueprint confusion is drawn out rather more than is welcome. However, this pedestrian pace works overall because that’s how it’s written, but it perhaps makes Early Light a little less accessible than a joyous 75-minute romp such as Murder by the Book.
Of course it’s always a treat to watch Columbo unravel a case. Here he’s as shrewd as ever, his detective wiles able to help him immediately discount the obvious suspect (Springer) because of how quickly he identified the cannon rag. Rumford’s failure to do so gives the Lieutenant reason to suspect him further down the line, but the script isn’t so heavy handed that it labours this point. And we again see evidence of Columbo’s everyman charms in how he ingratiates himself with the cadets to crack the mystery and force Rumford’s surrender.
In conclusion, By Dawn’s Early Light is something of a strange beast. I respect it for what it is: a wonderfully written, hard-hitting piece of detective drama featuring a riveting turn from McGoohan. But it’s not what I watch and love Columbo for, and it’s rare that I would choose it from the DVD collection with so many other more accessible, lighter options available.
Still, let that take nothing away from what is a highly impressive televisual achievement, and one that proved, even after nearly 30 episodes, that Columbo was still as ambitious and deft as it ever had been. Is there a cloud to that silver lining? How long can this quality be maintained?
Did you know?
Patrick McGoohan’s turn as Colonel Rumford was recognised by him winning the Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Series Emmy Award in 1975.
It was a good night for Columbo and its alumni, too, with Peter Falk winning the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series; Valerie Harper (Most Crucial Game) winning Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for Rhoda; and Jessica Walter (Mind Over Mayhem) scoring the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series for the critically acclaimed but unpopular Amy Prentiss.
Falk and McGoohan would double up again to win Columbo Emmys in 1990 – McGoohan for his portrayal of Oscar Finch from Agenda for Murder. I can’t find any photographic evidence of McGoohan’s 1975 win, but Peter Falk’s acceptance speech is below.
How I rate ’em
As you’ll have noted from the review, ranking Early Light is a tricky task. It’s terrific drama, but is very different from the average Columbo. As a result, I rank it mid-tier overall because I just don’t enjoy it in the same way I do my absolute favourites. It’s in excellent company, though, and with very little to choose between any of the episodes in my ‘B List’, this still represents a BOODLE-BOY-TASTIC thumbs up.
Read any of my other episode reviews via the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Negative Reaction
- A Friend in Deed
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder ——– A-List ends here—
- An Exercise in Fatality
- Swan Song
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- By Dawn’s Early Light
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man —– B-List ends here—
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal ———— C-List ends here—-
- Short Fuse
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Dagger of the Mind
As always I’d LOVE to hear your views on this episode. If you love it above all things, cast your vote for it in the Columbo favourite episode poll here. Shoot me a comment below, and come back soon for big adventure on the high seas as Columbo goes cruisin’ with Robert Vaughn in Troubled Waters.