Cowboy John Mason (John Wayne) rides into a frontier town. He is planning on working with his father, rancher Dad Mason (Joseph De Grasse). Unfortunately, John arrives just in time to witness his father being killed by a gang of thieves. John is wounded while chasing the thieves but, once he recovers, he’s determined to get vengeance against the man who killed his father. That man is Rudd Gordon (Dennis Gordon), who is also the brother of Alice Gordon (Marion Burns), the woman who nursed John back to health and who is also engages to marry John’s best friend, Ben McLure (Reed Howes).
There is a little deliberate humor to be found in The Dawn Rider. Every time someone is shot, the undertaker (Nelson McDowell) steps out of his office and measures the body while the town doctor celebrates having some business coming his way. Otherwise, this is one of the most serious films that John Wayne made in the years before Stagecoach made him a star. John Mason is determined to get revenge, even if his obsession means hurting his best friend’s fiancé. (Though John Mason is less fanatical, it is easy to imagine him growing up to be The Searchers‘s Ethan Edwards.) Ben has to decide whether to support his friend or the woman that he loves. (Complicating matters is that John is in love with Alice, too.) John Wayne and Reed Howes are a good team and Dennis Gordon is a convincing villain. There’s a good action scene involving John protecting a gold shipment from the gang and the final shootout is handled well. This 55-minute programmer undoubtedly taught many young viewers about frontier justice, even if they didn’t pick up on the film’s ambiguity. The Dawn Rider is one of the more mature of John Wayne’s early films and offers hints of the actor that John Wayne would eventually become.
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