William Wyler | 113 mins | TV | U
Roman Holiday is the kind of film where its list of achievements don’t quite precede it — Best Picture nominee (it lost to From Here to Eternity), places on the IMDb Top 250, They Shoot Pictures’ 1000 Greatest and one of the AFI’s 100 Years lists — but something else certainly does: this is the film that made Audrey Hepburn a star.
So let’s start with Hepburn. Here she plays a European Princess on a world tour, for various diplomatic reasons, which is coming to an end in Rome. She’s not happy, running off to see the real Rome, and sending her entourage into a quandary as they try to cover up her disappearance. It’s a role that could easily be intensely irritating — the spoilt little brat who doesn’t know how good she has it / with no sense of responsibility — but Hepburn seems to be effortlessly likeable, and it’s easy to sympathise with the idea that seeing the sights and having fun in an iconic city is a lot better than meeting a bunch of stuffy old men.
Through various contrivances, the Princess winds up in the flat of journalist Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck. He initially doesn’t realise who she is; he’s helping her out by giving her a bed for the night — the fact he’s Fundamentally Kind will become important in a bit. The next day, when he sleeps in and misses his scheduled interview with the Princess, he twigs who she is and sets about a plan to secretly get a world-exclusive, roping in photographer friend Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) to get candid shots of the Princess as they take her on a day messing about in Rome.
So, essentially, Joe is conning her. He doesn’t let on that he knows the truth, keeping up the act that he thinks she’s a school runaway after a good time; he tricks her into it so he can get a story that will undoubtedly bring some degree of shame, shock and/or scandal to her family and/or country. His moral underhandedness occasionally undercuts the movie: they seem to be allowing her to finally do the things she wants to do, but all along he’s memorising quotes and Irving is secretly snapping away. It all works out in the end — realistically, and therefore, perhaps, surprisingly — but on the way there…
On the other hand — and without wishing to give too much away — morals do get the better of Joe and Irving, and they do often seem quite genuine in the way they help the Princess do what she wants, and they have a good time too (and not because they stand to be rolling in it if they pull it off); and, naturally, Joe ends up in love with the Princess and all that, and it does all work out in the end… It’s a matter of interpretation, perhaps. If you choose to focus on Joe’s ultimate aim — selling the story — then most of the film is a nasty trick. If, instead, you remember that he’s Fundamentally Kind, it might be less troubling that he has a secret plan most of the time.
Morals aside, the cast work well together. The film is often painted as a Peck/Hepburn two-hander — easier to sell the romance angle that way — and I’m sure it would work as that, but Albert’s in it enough to qualify for attention, and is fairly essential to what makes it quite so likeable in my opinion. He and Peck carry much of the humour while Hepburn charms as a sweet girl finally allowed to be herself.
The bulk of the narrative is structured as a series of set pieces and individual sequences/moments, taking the cast from situation to situation: her scooter riding, cafe foolery, barge dancing/fight, and so on. In some ways, it’s just taking the audience along with them — there’s the Princess’ entourage trying to recover her and Joe formulating his story, but it’s more about the fun the characters are having doing whatever than the way it contributes to either of these plots. Wyler puts the genuine Rome locations to good use — and when you’re the first Hollywood film to be shot entirely in Italy, why wouldn’t you? It’s a cliché I know, but the city is as much a character as any of the cast.
In spite of some characters’ moral underhandedness, Roman Holiday emerges as a very likeable film about, essentially, having a lovely time on holiday somewhere nice. Hepburn may not be as obviously iconic here as she would become thanks to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I think it’s clear to see how she would become a beloved star.
Roman Holiday is on More4 today, Thursday 23rd April 2015, at 10:50am.