John Wayne embarked on a promising acting career with director Raoul Walsh's epic wagon train spectacle "The Big Trail" (1930), one of Fox Studio's biggest and most ambitious westerns which also pioneered the widescreen process. Unfortunately, both for Wayne and what later came to be called 'Cinemascope,' audiences flocked neither to see him nor this big-budgeted oater. Consequently, Wayne languished in B-westerns, Saturday matinée serials, and supporting parts for about a decade before director John Ford rescued him from obscurity with his groundbreaking horse opera "Stagecoach" (1939) co-starring Claire Trevor and Thomas Mitchell. This top-notch revenge western not only revived the Duke's career but also ushered in a new era of maturity for westerns. Meantime, until "Stagecoach," when Wayne wasn't toiling in cheap westerns, he played bit parts in bigger movies, such as "The Deceiver" where he played a corpse, as well as "His Private Secretary" and "Baby Face," biding his time until Ford found him. Wayne took second billing to Colonel Tim McCoy in three Columbia Pictures' sagebrushers "The Range Feud," "Texas Cyclone," and "Two-Fisted Law." During this same period, Wayne toplined three sprawling Mascot Pictures serials: "The Shadow of the Eagle," "The Hurricane Express, and a French Foreign Legion version of "The Three Musketeers." Warner Brothers contracted him for a string of modest westerns, including "Ride Him, Cowboy," "The Big Stampede," "Haunted Gold,""The Telegraph Trail," "Somewhere in Sonora," and "The Man from Monterey," but Jack Warner refused to renew his contract. At the same time, Wayne took small parts in non-western melodramas at Warners. The Duke moved on to Monogram Pictures. He starred in 16 westerns for Lone Star Productions. Compared to his westerns at Columbia and Warners, the Lone Star oaters were primitive, poverty row productions. "The Dawn Rider" appeared near the end of the Lone Star series. In fact, "The Dawn Rider" was his penultimate appearance for Lone Star Pictures and exemplified the kind of movies that he made for director Robert N. Bradbury. By this time, Wayne was displaying some of the swaggering, masculine charm that he parlayed later into a million dollar career courtesy of John Ford.
"The Dawn Rider" opens as Ben McClure (Reed Howes) and a town undertaker named Bates discuss the sheer lack of excitement in town. Bates shakes his head and observes morosely, "Oh, this town is too healthy. If something don't happen soon, I'll have to vamoose." Suddenly, they witness a scuffle between two cowpokes on the main street. McClure intervenes, brandishes his six-shooter, and forces the man who started the fight to dance in front of a crowd of folks by shooting at the fellow's feet. This bullet ballet was a western staple. McClure deliberately misses the man's boots by inches. The punished cowpoke collapses in a mud hole. John Mason (John Wayne) rides into town and helps this forlorn figure out of the mud hole. Afterward, Mason challenges McClure to a fight. They tangle briefly in a fist-flying brawl that concludes with them shaking hands. The same day Mason returns home, he watches in horror as his father, Dad Mason (Joseph De Grasse) is shot to death during an Express Company hold-up. All that Mason can make out of his father's murderer is a polka dot bandana. You see, the bad man shoots Dad through a broken window. Afterward, Mason pursues the villains on horseback and blows a couple of the dastards out of their saddles with his well-aimed shots. The villains wound Mason during the fracas. Ironically, it turns out that the chief villain's sister, Alice Gordon (Marion Burns), nurses our hero back to health. Meanwhile, the chief villain, Rudd Gordon (Dennis Moore), pits our ten-gallon hero against his best friend, McClure, and tells McClure that Mason is stepping out with his girlfriend. Of course, Ben is jealous and takes all the bullets out of his gun before he realizes that Rudd has tricked him.
This dusty, bare-bones horse opera features a couple of fistfights and gunfights. The scenery is as rugged as the heroes are virtuous, and the villains are nefarious. Stuntman Yakima Canutt plays an evil barkeeper who urges Rudd to kill Mason. Later, Wayne and Canutt battle it out. Watch the ring that Ben gets for Alice because it is a major plot point. Christian Slater stars in the 2012 remake that beefs up the plot considerably but sticks to the basics. The villains in the remake wear flour sacks for disguises, and Slater hero is haunted by his past in a Mexican prison. The John Wayne hero is unbesmirched by comparison. He doesn't have a U.S. Marshal (Donald Sutherland) riding after him with an arrest warrant. The remake includes the plot point about Ben's stolen ring, but the ranch that Rudd and Alice own is endanger of being repossessed. Some of the flavorful dialogue in the original screenplay credited to Robert N. Bradbury and Wellyn Totman, based on a story by Lloyd Nosler is quite good. Bradbury derives some amusing comic relief from the town's sole undertaker. None of this humor makes it into the remake that uses the F-word about ten times and contains more graphic gunfights. No, Christian Slater is no John Wayne, but the remake surpasses "The Dawn Rider."