As an unusual holiday season approaches, if you are reminiscent of the more bustling ones in the past, why not take a trip to Rome through the film Roman Holiday, directed by William Wyler. Though it is a black-and-white film produced in 1953, the lack of colour by no means discolours the characters’ vibrant passion and personal growth. Whenever this film is played, the story is a perfect balance of different flavours, with the sweet touch of a relaxing comedy and a trace of bitterness for the audience to digest.
Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn), the direct heir to the British throne, heads to Rome not for a holiday, but the last station of her European goodwill tour. One could never imagine that behind her embroidered gowns, elegant smiles and manners, and the title of “royal highness”, lies a wild heart that is perhaps owned by any girl of such a young age. Utterly bored by her endless schedule, the princess sneaks out of the British Embassy on her first night in Rome and embarks upon her adventurous holiday. Later in the night, American journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) finds her asleep on a bench. He kindly takes care of her and soon finds out her true identity. But he pretends to know nothing about her, and serves as her tour guide, attempting to produce an exclusive report. The story thus proceeds with a princess “at large”.
What always captures me first in this film is the down-to-earth warmth and liveliness of Rome. Pushing through the crowd in the street ushered by stalls on both sides, accompanied by the tinkling of bike bells and the gentle motor boom from scooters. Awkwardly running out of money but being gifted a blossoming flower by the eager florist. Dancing and meeting new people in an energetic party along the Tiber River. These scenes, even appearing on the screen, brighten up the day. Ann is warmly welcomed by the people of the city, not because she is a member of a royal family, but for her charm as a fair young girl with curious eyes and a cordial smile. People speaking different languages, in different stages of their lives, and working in different occupations, are all attracted to and united by the beauty of the readily tangible aspects of life. “I am a good cook. I can earn my living at it. I can sew too, and clean a house, and iron. I just…haven’t had the chance to do it for anyone.” To cook, to sew, to clean, to iron – these are the simple wishes of the princess. This serves as a reminder to us, that the magic of life may just be hidden in the mundane.
The thought-provoking moments come when Princess Ann and Joe Bradley, after spending one wonderful day together touring the city, have to resolve whether and how to say goodbye to each other. The ending is impactful not in their tough but inevitable farewell, but the tacit understanding in their brave choices of returning to their own lives and letting each other go. It seems so unreal that such strong mutual understanding can develop between people by mere coincidence, but simultaneously so real that it’s no more than a coincidence that their lives intersect. The high-spirited holiday leads them both to discover for the first time the true meaning of their roles. “Were I not completely aware of my duty to my family and my country, I would not come back tonight. Or indeed ever again.” Princess Ann does not return to the embassy under the pressure of secret agents after her. Instead, it is because she is touched by the public’s concern for her on the radio.
Inspired by her experience in Rome, she realises what her “goodwill tour” is truly for – not a tedious political demonstration but a step to promote peace and cooperation that ensures European people can continue to live with enthusiasm in tranquility. “There is no story…not as far as I’m concerned.” Joe Bradley chooses not to report the story, not simply because of its unpredictable effect on the princess’s reputation, but because the memory of the day is too precious to him to be published for money and attention. He determines to respond to Ann’s trust in him with the same genuineness. It’s irresponsible to forever indulge in the ideal portraits of life, but there is no fault in having dreams. The chance meeting of Princess Ann and Joe Bradley is so impressive because one retains a dream and the other willingly protects the dream, and both, throughout this day, devote their whole hearts to each other.
At the time Roman Holiday was shot, people were already able to produce coloured films, but Wyler decided to use his limited fund in shooting all the scenes in Rome, rather than in colour in Hollywood studios. This is perhaps the undying charm of old films. Pruned of spectacles, the audience can focus more on the originality and sincerity of the actors, sceneries, and stories. As one of the classics of old cinema, Roman Holiday still has something for everybody. It presents a relaxing resort where the wishes for a carefree life can come true. It inspires the audience to reflect upon our reality and yearnings. No matter what you desire going into this film, the gorgeous actors Hepburn and Peck or the landmarks of Rome, the comedic interludes or the dramatic adventure of two strangers, you will not leave it with regret.