Thursday, December 22, 2011

Guest Review: Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)

This wonderful review of Roman Holiday is a guest post from a friend and work colleague of mine, Dominique Nesbit. Dominique has a passion for classic and foreign film, and it is with great pleasure that I welcome her to the site. I hope Dominique will continue pursuing writing, and I look forward to sharing more of her work in the future.

As a child, I wanted to be Audrey Hepburn. The seven-year old me thought her beautiful, graceful, elegant, and incredibly stylish. Apart from my own mother, who exudes style and grace in her own right, I had never encountered such beauty. The word “beauty,” as I have used it here, relates to a kind of feeling or perception which struck me upon viewing Hepburn for the first time. I will admit that at seven, I never would have thought to use the word “beauty” to express anything other than an appreciation of one’s physicality, but seeing  Hepburn play in Roman Holiday showed me that there existed a far more potent kind of beauty, that of the spirit; of the person who lies within.

In Roman Holiday, Hepburn’s rare kind of beauty is showcased in several unforgettable sequences but for me, one scene in particular stands out as a remarkable testament to her character. Gregory Peck’s Joe Bradley sets about showing Hepburn’s Anya/Anne the glorious sights of Rome. On the back of a Vespa, a typically Roman mode of transport, they take in the sights of a formidable city unlike any other in its construction. One stop on their tour of the Eternal City is to the church of Santa Maria, home to the Bocca della VeritĂ  (Mouth of Truth). Legend has it that to place a deceitful hand inside the mouth of truth is to condemn it to amputation by the cruellest method: the Bocca is said to bite off the hand of a liar. Unbeknownst to Hepburn, Gregory Peck had – in collaboration with William Wyler – devised a scheme that was certain to get a reaction out of the young star. Peck leads an obedient Audrey Hepburn into the sacred site. He asks her to offer her hand to the Bocca, which she nervously agrees to. Having placed her hand inside, she asks that he do the same. Peck sticks his hand deep inside the Mouth with an air of nonchalance that Hepburn clearly finds unnerving. What follows is made all the more significant in that it was one of those few occasions where director William Wyler went against his stereotype, as Hollywood’s ‘perfectionist,’ and agreed to let the scene play out in one single take. This, to me anyway, says something of Hepburn’s intoxicating on-screen presence. Her acting-style, particularly in this film, was so natural; so spontaneous that Wyler allowed the camera to keep rolling so that she could imbue the lens with all that natural, unaffected beauty.

 Now, back to the scene...

Peck’s mood suddenly changes.  He becomes distraught, starts yelling and tugging at his hand which causes Hepburn to believe that it is being consumed by this vicious monster.  She immediately clings to his back in an effort to pull him out safely. When he emerges without his right hand visible, Hepburn shrieks with horror and immediately covers her face in despair. As she stands contemplating how such a simple scene could go so horribly wrong, Peck pulls out his hand from its hiding place and offers it to Hepburn, whose natural response is to cling to him tightly – an action which expresses both her relief and embarrassment at being so easily led.

In the annals of film history, William Wyler’s Roman Holiday is not only remembered as the film which introduced the world to the delightful Audrey Hepburn (who won an Academy Award for her performance), but it is recognised as the first Hollywood film to be shot entirely on location. The film certainly benefits from having been shot in Rome, as it is as much a film about Rome (her character, her people, her sights and sounds) as it is the story of a brief but memorable encounter between a Princess (Hepburn) and a journalist (Peck).

I’d rather not delve too much more into the plotline for fear of spoiling this beautifully simple tale which in essence is just another twist on the theme of impossible love.  Roman Holiday stands out, I think, for two reasons. The first is in the casting of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, who share a natural chemistry which radiates/permeates the screen. The second, put simply, is Rome. In the final sequence, Princess Anne attends a press conference (Joe Bradley is among the members of the press gathered in the large hall) where she is asked “Which of the cities visited did Your Highness enjoy the most?” There is silence. The Princess is fed an answer by one of her officials. She begins to answer the question with “Each in its own way was unforgettable...It would be difficult to...” She pauses and after a few seconds pass (she looks directly at Joe Bradley), says defiantly “Rome. By all means, Rome.  I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.”

The film’s ending is also worth a mention if only to say that Gregory Peck walks from the scene with a simplicity that rivals Chaplin’s Little Tramp in either Modern Times or The Circus. The film’s ending, borrowed from the great Charles Chaplin, re-affirms that there is something profoundly beautiful about silence and its capacity to say everything without saying anything at all.

Since that first viewing at age seven, I have seen the film dozens of times. Whilst it has lost some of its spontaneity, in that I can almost recite every line uttered word for word, I maintain that Roman Holiday is an essential film viewing experience. I will concede that my opinion may be fuelled by a sentimental; nostalgic reflection on my childhood and the important place this film had in it. It is my hope that my obvious bias towards the film will not detract from the experience of watching it for the first time. I doubt it will.


  1. Splendid review Dominique! Ever since I fell under the spell of Gregory Peck I've come to appreciate this film even more. I first saw this on account of my love of Audrey, her first film I saw was My Fair Lady when I was a wee girl, but upon multiple viewings of this one, I regard this to be my favorite Audrey Hepburn film of all time.

    I LOVE what you wrote about Greg and Audrey's wonderful chemistry in this film, it really is the key to this film's effectiveness and eventual success. And that ending, OH MY! It still renders me speechless not just because of Greg's amazing elegance and beauty, but also what that scene signifies... you are so right that silence often speaks a thousand words. It's rare for ANY film to have such a profound and memorable ending, and for something that already has so much going for it like Roman Holiday, it's definitely icing on the cake!

    I hope you continue to write for Andy's fabulous blog!

  2. Great review! I have linked you on my blog via my post on a trip to Rome.


    "Rome, thou art a whole world, it is true, and yet without love this
    World would not be the world, Rome would cease to be Rome..."