It’s a big day in more ways than one, so let’s get to it. For 45 years, Shakespeare’s Henry V belonged firmly to Laurence Olivier, whose 1944 version was considered definitive. Intended to rally the British nation during World War II, it offered a fairy-tale atmosphere of inevitable victory and proved so potent that no one dared make another version of it…. until a cheeky bastard named Kenneth Branagh stepped up to the plate. Branagh adapted, directed and starred in a gritty new “post-Falklands” take on the story, which not only made him an international star, but today is widely considered the better of the two versions. It opened today in 1989.
Henry V is good for bracing courage on Election Day. Far darker is All the King’s Men, a fictionalized account of the rise of populist politician Huey Long. The Sean Penn remake was nearly unwatchable, but this one reveals the cunning and sinister depths that some “men of the people” can evince — and with a Best Picture Oscar under its belt, as well as a terrific performance from Broderick Crawford, there’s worse ways to hide from the polls. It opened today in 1949.
Speaking of bad behavior, anyone interested in watching Charles Laughton act like a swine should check out Mutiny on the Bounty, the definitive version of the grand sea tale of a ship’s crew laboring under a despotic captain until they’ve had all they can stands and they can’t stands no more. Clark Gable leads the revolt as Fletcher Christian, and anyone interested in sticking it to The Man — which I can’t imagine happening today — can find something to cheer for here. It opened today in 1935.
Okay, time for something more cheerful. How about The Mark of Zorro, featuring Tyrone Power as the rich man who dons a mask and fights evil in the early days of California? It’s great swashbuckling fun, and — trivia time — is officially the movie that Bruce Wayne went to see with his parents the night they were killed. Apparently, the kid took some inspiration from the flick. It opened today in 1940.
Then there’s Jailhouse Rock, the best of the Elvis films which features the King as an ex-con singing his way to a post-clink stardom. It’s bubbly and exuberant and everything you need from Mr. Presley. It opened today in 1957.
Need more? We got Disney too. The 1970s were not a great decade for the House of Mouse, which struggled to find a path forward after the death of their legendary founder. And yet their animated features continued to perform at the box office… including their adaptation of Robin Hood featuring an anthropomorphic fox in the lead. It’s still considered mid-level Disney at best, but it’s held up well enough and retains some measure of the company’s spirit. The creators of this year’s marvelous Zootopia cited it as a significant influence. It opened today in 1973.
And speaking of second-tier, we’ll close with Thor: The Dark World, largely regarded as an also-ran in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but still indicative of the high level of quality that franchise has engendered. Even the also-rans are pretty good in the MCU, and for a series that sometimes struggles to find compelling villains, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki makes this one worth watching almost on his own. (He delivered a pretty solid version of Henry V too.) It opened today in 2013.