When I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher loved film. Just loved it. He had actually bought a TV to keep in his classroom so he could show us movies whenever he wanted to without having to go through the byzantine AV requests to get a TV from the school. The movies only glancingly had anything to do with the state-approved curriculum most of the time, and I’m frankly unsure if it had been the state’s idea or his for us to study Our Town—and I know The Skin of Our Teeth was his. For finals week, the schedule was rearranged so that you got half-days all week with two two-hour classes a day, so the teacher could give you a proper final. And Mr. Garden didn’t give a final, he showed a movie. He let us vote between Brigadoon and Roman Holiday. And I have never been so happy to be outvoted in my life; it was the first time I saw it, and it’s been my favourite movie ever since.
It was Audrey Hepburn’s eighth movie and her break-out role as Princess Ann of [mumble mumble]. She is on a European goodwill tour, stopping in various countries to speak on friendship between nations and the promise of youth and so forth. One night in Rome, she cracks under the strain. She’s given a sedative, but before it can take effect, she escapes into the night. American journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) finds her and takes her home, because he is extremely worried about the (as far as he knows) drunk young woman alone on the streets of Rome. The next day, he discovers her identity and, hiding his, takes her to spend the whole day doing just as she pleases, the better to get a newspaper article out of her.
Well, of course they fall in love. It’s 1953; would you be able to resist falling in love with either of them on a carefree day such as that? Especially with the sardonic Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) along to provide snark and funding? You could almost forget that you had duties and obligations waiting for you and believe that the day would be able to last forever. And so they see any number of highlights of Rome, and the movie’s just general joy pervades the whole thing. It’s a very funny movie, something I’m not sure comes up often enough in discussions of it. It’s not just Irving. In fact, even before Irving joins the pair, there’s an extremely funny bit where Joe is trying to borrow a camera from a tourist girl (the girls are Catherine and Judy Wyler) because he needs pictures of Ann.
I love, too, that there’s more to her character than just being beautiful. She has a certain amount of innocent ignorance—it never occurs to her that Joe may not have much money, for one thing, and she’s used to going through life as a princess with all that entails. And goodness knows she’s fortunate to have been picked up by a guy whose only planned exploitation is a newspaper exclusive. But she’s intelligent and witty and fierce. She thinks nothing of bashing a guitar over the head of a guy she absolutely knows to be an agent of her own country trying to take her back to the embassy. She knows from the beginning, I think, that her freedom cannot last, but she’s going to make the most of it while she can. I think she falls in love with freedom as much as with Joe.
Joe, like the camera, falls in love with Audrey Hepburn. She quickly stops being just an opportunity to him—as we know she will be, not least because he’s so determined to make sure she isn’t just left out on the streets of Rome for anyone to harass. Sure, he makes her sleep on his couch, but he does, after all, bring her home with him because he knows he won’t hurt her and worries about every other possible option.
It is, I admit, hard to get around the fact that he spends the entire movie lying to her, and she only really finds out the truth about him in the last ten minutes. There’s a great moment at the Mouth of Truth wherein she challenges him to put his hand in it, and he knows he’s currently lying—he’s told her that he’s a salesman in manure, which is a clever play but is also, you know, a lie. On the other hand, I think it makes her choices more pure, if you will. She is choosing between love and duty, and there are no complications involved about the other issues of that love.
Then again, she’s lying to him. She tells him her name is Anya; well, that may be a language difference, since we don’t know what country she’s from. But she thinks he believes she’s run away from a girls’ school. She refers to her father’s anniversary of “the day he got his job,” and while her remarks while drinking the champagne are sly references to his being a king, she never admits it. Despite her appearance in newsreels and newspapers, she clearly thinks that he thinks she is what she’s pretending to be. In both cases, the lie is because they’re aware of what the truth would do.
I cry every time. Every time. This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first time I saw the movie, and I still cry every time. [This article is a recycled Movie of the Week article from two years ago.] Last year, when I was choosing comfort movies to take with me in my emotional distress, I didn’t choose this one even though it was my favourite, because it’s not exactly comforting. I perhaps also didn’t need the discussion of duty when I was trying to prioritize the literally life-threatening needs of one child over the emotional and physical well-being of the other one?
But in times when I’m not in severe emotional distress for other reasons, I will watch this movie just because I love it, because I love celebrating young Audrey Hepburn (twenty-four at the time) and young-ish Gregory Peck (thirty-seven) and Rome, above all Rome. I had the chance to see it in the theatre a few years ago, and while it’s not a movie that really cries out for the big screen treatment, it’s still one that does well from it. The city does very well from such treatment, and of course the exquisite Audrey.
I don’t believe this movie can end any other way than it does given what we know of the characters and the era. It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if it tied in with Princess Margaret of the UK’s love affair with a divorced man at about the same time. And after all, Princess Margaret eventually chose to walk away from the relationship, which would not have been countenanced by the Church of England, of which her sister was the leader. Honestly, I don’t know why I’ve always assumed that Ann was the heir of her parents’ kingdom. I guess I thought it would be easier to choose your own path if you weren’t.