The film begins as a recreation of a stage production of the play in the Globe Theatre, then gradually turns into a stylised cinematic rendition of the play, with sets reminiscent of a medieval Book of Hours. It follows the overall pattern of Shakespeare's play, depicting Henry's campaign in France, through the siege of Harfleur. The film then shows the Battle of Agincourt in a real setting, after which the film quickly begins to revert to backdrops that are once again more and more like medieval illuminated manuscripts. We then see the negotiations for Treaty of Troyes and Henry's courtship of Princess Katherine followed by their marriage. At the end of the scene, the setting reverts to the Globe Playhouse and the audience applauding.
The film was made near the end of World War II and was intended as a morale booster for Britain. Consequently, the film was partly funded by the British government. The film was originally "dedicated to the ‘Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture.’" The movie won Olivier an Academy Honorary Award for "his Outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen."
We see a panorama of London in 1600 and travel to the Globe Theatre where the audience is being seated. The Chorus (Leslie Banks) enters and implores the audience to use their imagination to visualise the setting of the play. We then see, up on a balcony, two clergymen, The Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer), and the Bishop of Ely (Robert Helpmann) discussing the current affairs of state. Henry (Laurence Olivier) then enters, and discusses with his nobles the state of France. A gift is delivered to Henry from the French Dauphin. The gift turns out to be tennis balls, a jibe at Henry's youth and inexperience. Offended, Henry sends the French ambassador away, and prepares to claim the French throne, a throne that he believes is rightfully his.
We then see characters from Shakespeare's Henry IV plays: Corporal Nym (Frederick Cooper), Bardolph (Roy Emerton), and Pistol (Robert Newton). These characters resolve to join Henry's army, however, before they do, Falstaff (George Robey), another returning character, and one of the King's former mentors, dies. At this point, the film gradually ceases to be located in the Globe Theatre; instead the scenes are performed in stylised film sets reminiscent of a medieval Book of Hours.
At Southampton, the fleet embarks, and lands in France, beginning a campaign that tears through France to Harfleur, where Henry's forces lay siege. At the siege, Henry delivers his first rousing speech to his troops: "Once more... unto the breach! Dear friends, once more!" The troops charge on Harfleur, and take it as their own.
The troops then march to Agincourt, meeting the French forces. Before the impending battle, Henry wanders around the camp in disguise, to find out what the men think of him. The next day, before the battle, Henry delivers his famous Saint Crispin's Day speech. The Battle of Agincourt then commences. This sequence is filmed on location in a realist style, unlike the stylised sets seen previously; however, the Technicolor is still very bright and somewhat larger than life, unlike the same scene in the later Kenneth Branagh version. The English archers let forth a volley of arrows that cuts deeply into the French numbers. The French, weighed down by their heavy armour, are caught in the fresh mud of the field, and are bogged down, which gives the English troops ample opportunity to ride out and fight them on equal terms. The French Dauphin (Max Adrian), seeing this disadvantage, watches as several bodyguards and noblemen including the Constable of France ride toward the English camp and kills all the boys and squires, prompting a tearful Fluellen to state that 'this is expressly against the law of arms'. Henry is angered by this and rides out to meet the French Constable (Leo Genn). Fighting each other, one-on-one, swords in hand, the Constable strikes Henry in the head, shaking him. Henry turns and continues to fight the Constable, who sheaths his sword in favour of a mace. The Constable then strikes Henry's hand, causing him to drop his sword. Henry, now disarmed, lashes out and strikes the Constable in the face with his gauntlet, causing him to fall to the ground and presumably killing him.
The battle is won. Henry then proceeds to court the Princess Katherine (Renée Asherson); the film now returns to the stylised sets. Henry woos Katherine, and France is now under the control of England, as the French King, Charles VI adopts Henry as his successor. In the final moments of the play, we return to the Globe Theatre again, and the actors take their bows.Laurence Olivier as King Henry V of England. Henry is the King of England, who is insulted by the French and compelled to invade them. He is a warrior king, who commands his troops from the front. This was Laurence Olivier's third Oscar-nominated performance, and his second appearance in a Shakespeare film.
Renée Asherson as Princess Katherine. Katherine is wooed by Henry and becomes his wife.
Robert Newton as Ancient Pistol.
Leslie Banks as the Chorus. The Chorus sets the scene for the play and film, giving the required exposition. Leslie Banks was an actor who had appeared with Olivier in Fire Over England.
Felix Aylmer as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop helps tempt the King into his conquest of France. Olivier stages this scene partly as comedy, with the actor who plays the Archbishop in the Globe Theatre comically jumbling all his papers and losing his place in the script. Aylmer had appeared with Olivier in As You Like It, and would subsequently appear in Hamlet.
Robert Helpmann as the Bishop of Ely. The Bishop helps the Archbishop in his persuasion of the King. In the film, he appears as a comic figure.
Vernon Greeves as The English Herald.
Gerald Case as the Earl of Westmoreland.
Griffith Jones as the Earl of Salisbury. Salisbury is a commander who fights at Harfleur and Agincourt.
Morland Graham as Sir Thomas Erpingham. Erpingham plays a decisive role in the Battle of Agincourt.
Nicholas Hannen as the Duke of Exeter. The Duke is the uncle to the king.
Michael Warre as the Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester is the brother to the king.
Ralph Truman as Mountjoy, The French Herald.
Ernest Thesiger as Duke of Berri, French Ambassador.
Frederick Cooper as Corporal Nym.
Roy Emerton as Lieutenant Bardolph.
Freda Jackson as Mistress Quickly.
George Cole as the Boy.
George Robey as Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff is a companion to Henry.
Harcourt Williams as King Charles VI of France. Charles is the sick and old King of France. Williams later appeared as the First Player in the Laurence Olivier Hamlet, but his monologue on the death of Priam was omitted from the film.
Russell Thorndike as the Duke of Bourbon. Bourbon fights at Agincourt and is captured. Thorndike appeared in all three of Olivier's Shakespearean films.
Leo Genn as The Constable of France. The Constable was the commander of the French forces at Agincourt, and is killed by King Henry himself during the battle.
Francis Lister as the Duke of Orleans. Orleans is a nobleman who fights at Agincourt.
Max Adrian as The Dauphin. The Dauphin is the cocky joint-commander of the forces at Agincourt.
Jonathan Field as The French Messenger.
Esmond Knight as Fluellen, Welsh Captain in the English Army. Knight appeared in all three of Olivier's Shakespearean films, as well as his The Prince and the Showgirl.
Michael Shepley as Gower, Captain in the English Army.
John Laurie as Jamy, Scottish Captain in the English Army. Laurie appeared in all three of Olivier's Shakespearean films.
Niall MacGinnis as MacMorris, Irish Captain in the English Army.
Frank Tickle as The Governor of Harfleur.
Ivy St. Helier as Alice.
Janet Burnell as Queen Isabel of France. Isabel is the wife of Charles.
Brian Nissen as Court, Soldier in the English Army.
Arthur Hambling as Bates, Soldier in the English Army.
Jimmy Hanley as Williams, Soldier in the English Army.
Ernest Hare as A Priest. The priest weds Henry and Katherine.
Valentine Dyall as the Duke of Burgundy. Burgundy is a French nobleman.
Winston Churchill instructed Olivier to fashion the film as morale-boosting propaganda for British troops fighting World War II. The making and release of the film coincided with the Allied invasion of Normandy and push into France. An early preview trailer of the film showed contemporary London just before cutting to the film's aerial footage of London in 1600.
Olivier intentionally left out some of Henry's harsher traits as Shakespeare wrote them – such as his threat to unleash his troops to rape and pillage Harfleur and his remorseless beheading of the three Southampton Plot traitors, Richard of Conisburgh, 3rd Earl of Cambridge; Henry Scrope, 3rd Baron Scrope of Masham; and Sir Thomas Grey, as well as his refusal to stop the hanging of Bardolph for looting. The melancholy reference at the end of the play to how England under Henry VI eventually lost France is also omitted.
Hundreds of locals were hired as extras for the Agincourt battle scenes filmed in neutral Ireland in 1943. The production company paid an additional pound to anyone who brought his own horse.
Olivier agreed not to appear in another film for 18 months to reduce any detraction from the promotion of Henry V. In return, he was paid £15,000, tax-free (about £460,000 in today's money).
Esmond Knight, who plays the patriotic Welsh soldier Fluellen was a wounded veteran of the war. He had been badly injured in 1941 while on active service on board HMS Prince of Wales when she was attacked by the Bismarck, and remained totally blind for two years. He had only just regained some sight in his right eye.
The film was shot on location at the Powerscourt Estate in Enniskerry, County Wicklow, Ireland. The interior sets were constructed at the Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire, England. They were based on illustrations from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry the illustrator of which is also a character in the play.
The film, which was photographed in three-strip Technicolor, was hailed by critics for its ebulliently colourful sets and costumes, as well as for Olivier's masterful direction and acting. Pauline Kael called the movie "a triumph of color, music, spectacle and soaring heroic poetry". James Agee reported, in Time magazine's 8 April 1946 issue, that a remarkable 75 percent of the color footage shot was used in the final release.
In 2007, the film was digitally restored to High Definition format and re-released. As part of the BBC Summer of British Film series in 2007, it was shown at selected cinemas across the UK.
The score by William Walton is considered a classic film score, and excerpts from it, such as the orchestral Suite from Henry V, have been performed in concert. A recording of the score arranged by Christopher Palmer, with actor Christopher Plummer reading the speeches given by the Chorus, Henry V, and the Duke of Burgundy, was released in 1990 under the title Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario. The score incorporates elements from a well-known vocal adaptation of French folk-songs called Chants d'Auvergne by Joseph Canteloube. The 2007 re-release of Sir Neville Marriner's recording of the score also includes original versions of earlier music by composers whose works were incorporated into the score, including selections from Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne.
A section of the track "The Battle of Agincourt" were used by the BBC for their Election Night Result programme in 1959 and 1964.
The film was meant to cost £350,000 but ended up costing nearly £500,000.
The film was highly acclaimed around the world. James Agee, who reviewed it separately for three publications, called it "one of the cinema's great works of art".
It earned over $1 million in rentals in the US.
However, due to its high production cost and Entertainment Tax it did not go into profit for Rank until 1949. It earned United Artists profit of $1.62 million.
The film is believed to have been the first film to have successfully solved problems relating to the rendering of the Bard on screen. Mary Pickford's 1929 Taming of the Shrew retained little of Shakespeare's dialogue having started production as a silent film. Max Reinhardt's 1935 A Midsummer's Night Dream for Warner Bros. received moderately good or mixed reviews, but didn't quite achieve acclaim. That next year saw a lackluster British film of As You Like It starring Olivier and scored by William Walton who scored all the Shakespeare films save one, directed by Olivier. However, it was the spectacular flop that same year of MGM's Romeo and Juliet that caused Hollywood to stay away from Shakespeare.
In 2007, Military History Magazine listed this production 75th among "The 100 Greatest War Movies."