Roman Holiday, a vacation from self

Love, comedy, and melancholy…these are the plinths that build the foundation of William Wyler’s 1953 film, Roman Holiday. If Audrey Hepburn prancing around Rome with Gregory Peck hot on her heels isn’t enough to pique your interest, then maybe seeing the sights of a beautifully shot 1950s Rome is.

Hepburn plays Ann, a foreign princess of an unspecified country, who is touring European capitals on a tight and demanding schedule: a regime of endless appointments and ceremony so demanding in fact that soon Ann cannot abide it any longer and suffers some sort of breakdown. Ann’s doctor gives her a sedative to calm her, after which she secretly leaves the embassy. She falls asleep on a bench which leads to a chance ‘meeting’ with a down on his luck journalist – Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) who decides to bring the sedated Ann back to his apartment for her own safety.


Initially unaware of whom Ann is (she gives herself the pseudonym Anya Smith) and amused by her regal affectations, the next morning the penny drops for Joe who sees her photo in the paper and realises who she really is, but he doesn’t let on. He decides instead to use Ann as leverage for an article in order to pay off his looming debts. Joe will take Ann on a tour of Rome while his photographer friend Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) surreptitiously takes pictures. However as the day draws to an end the two fall in love.  The pressure of Ann’s royal duties draws the film to a poignant close with her returning to her station while Joe decides not to cheapen their encounter with a tawdry article.

As a princess and pauper story, I had limited expectations, imagining that this would be a typical romance film where two individuals find solace in each other through the serendipitous events of a single day. However, as the film came to a close I was overwhelmed with a sense of sadness for the couple.  Ann was confined to a life of endless responsibilities and possibly a loveless marriage, while Joe would always ponder what might have been in their relationship, and thus it’s a paradoxical loop of fantasy and reality.

Trumbo with all the accoutrements
Trumbo and accoutrements

When taking a step back from the climactic conclusion, I attempted to construct a reality where the two lovers would be able to stay together but you come to a realisation that this ending was the only appropriate one. I dislike unrealistic or Deus ex Machina methods of storytelling, modern romantic films often enforce this expectation and it’s frustrating to see couples that obviously shouldn’t stay together ultimately end the film in a relationship because of the dictates of Hollywood romance conventions. Roman Holiday satisfies the need for realism which only adds to the poignancy, as Ann comes to accept her duty as a royal figure and Joe allows her to return to her position without an exaggerated gesture of love to pull her back in.

Dalton Trumbo, one of the film’s screenwriters (the other being John Dighton) was blacklisted for his association with the American Communist Party and as a consequence Trumbo was not credited for his contribution to the film.  Ian McLellan Hunter replaced Trumbo’s in the credits, however, after winning the Academy Award for Best Story, Hunter was also blacklisted for aiding Trumbo.

Ultimately, Roman Holiday provides a captivating love story that doesn’t overwhelm you with trite and sloppily written dialogue. The romance story – which builds upon the duplicity of both Ann and Joe who disguise their true identity from each other – is cultivated through intelligent and amusing interactions. As the film unfolds, the capacity of the main characters to leave the baggage of their real lives behind and to reinvent themselves for someone else and for each other gives us an insight into how hidebound we are by other people’s expectations, wherein we must fulfil a role expected of us.  That’s what makes Roman Holiday such a refreshing and bittersweet love story.

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