Strangers In A Strange Land: The Luminous Guidance of Roman Holiday
By Tom Roznowski
“Life isn’t always what one likes”: a line from Roman Holiday, the 1953 Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Pairing this with another timeless mantra, “Life is brief,” one might feel trapped beneath the weight of despair. We travel this path. We tear up maps. We remain lost until we’re found.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo achieved considerable success during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Increasingly though, his populist and pacifist sentiments drew him into conflict with America’s dominant post-war message: that the material and manufactured would elevate our mortal souls.
The inevitable collision of perspective and policy occurred in 1947 when Dalton Trumbo was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communist influence in the film industry. Along with Ring Lardner Jr. and Edward Dmytryk, Trumbo became one of the original Hollywood Ten, individuals whose names and talents would be blacklisted by the major studios.
In his appearance before the Committee, Trumbo refused to answer direct questions, remaining steadfast and unapologetic about his contempt for the inquiry. His comment about the sentence that would result in his incarceration for nearly a year at a federal penitentiary in Kentucky: “As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress and have had contempt for several since. That this was a crime or misdemeanor was the complaint, my complaint.”
Upon his release, Trumbo and his family moved to Mexico City. Exile from one’s homeland has informed and enriched the work of writers from Dante to Durrell. Separation from one’s origins will often focus the writer’s gaze upon life’s essentials as deeply-held values become more precious and their expression suddenly more critical.
During his time in Mexico City, Dalton Trumbo would produce perhaps the most resonant single work of his creative life. The screenplay would emerge as a light romantic comedy, oddly enough; carrying with it a far-seeing wisdom that had somehow eluded Trumbo during his years of political activism. It is ironic, yet somehow logical, that due to the on-going blacklist, this signature piece would be presented to the world anonymously. It was not until 2011, thirty-five years after his death, that Dalton Trumbo would finally receive formal writing credit for Roman Holiday.
Money and status alone cannot create meaning and happiness. Less can be more; in fact, less may be all there really is.
The film opens with a newsreel report about Princess Ann, a young royal-in-waiting in the midst of a whirlwind goodwill tour through post-war Europe. Her stress levels reach a saturation point in Italy, which in 1953 was still bearing the social and economic scars of the previous decade. The country’s rampant post-war inflation, with 10 American dollars being equivalent to over 6,000 Italian lira, serves as a running joke throughout the film.
In a strange way, the modest circumstances of daily life in Rome provide a common ground for the film’s two disparate characters. The Princess, as played by Audrey Hepburn, is privileged and sheltered. Her stress arises from hauling the weight of abundance. Every waking hour is planned in advance by her handlers. She walks through her days in a daze, motivated by other’s expectations.
On the first night of her visit to Rome, the Princess steps out onto the balcony of her embassy, drawn to the laughter and music of an open-air party just outside the gates. She is transported, initially by a desire for meaningful connection and later by a laundry truck as she sets off on her journey of discovery.
Trumbo then introduces us to Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a reporter for the American News Service. Bradley is also eager to escape his daily reality. For him, though, it is the lack of abundance that proves confining. His one-room walk-up flat has no kitchen, no telephone. His life abroad has no traction. He can’t even win at poker when dealing the cards.
The desperate reporter’s discovery of the sleeping princess suddenly offers him the opportunity of a lifetime: a relative fortune of $5,000 U.S. dollars for an exclusive story about his new friend. The fact that the amount translates to over 3,000,000 Italian lira means little to our hero. Joe Bradley wants to abandon his modest situation in Europe and return to America.
The chance meeting of these two characters produces a brief spark that illuminates the space surrounding them. Rome is called the Eternal City for a reason. In fact, at the moment when Princess Ann, still concealing her identity from Bradley, agrees to a day of doing everything she’s always wanted, time actually reverses itself. The clock tower of Trinita dei Monti above the Spanish Steps reads 11:30 AM, a half hour before the chimes that actually begin their day.
Symbolically, this illusion wipes the drab slate of reality clean and propels the fated couple into a mystical adventure: their past, their future, forgotten for just a few stolen hours from one precious day in pursuit of the now.
So just how does one get to the now? In transitioning from a formerly comfortable life to sudden exile, Dalton Trumbo has some thoughts to share. The full embrace of the present is a fundamental goal of the searching soul. The couple’s day together in Rome plays out with a mix of the unanticipated and the intentional, a range of emotions from fear, to reverence, to delight. And as it all unfolds, Dalton Trumbo’s script places his personal values squarely in the couple’s magical experience.
Fundamentally, Trumbo is inviting us to explore and come to know the place where we find ourselves, beginning with the other people who share it. Trumbo considers this in both its global and local implications. Throughout Roman Holiday, the Italian language is neither anglicized nor sub-titled. It remains the visitor and the viewer’s responsibility to understand. The couple deepens their awareness of Rome’s history, its fables, and its legends, all the while reveling in the beauty and pleasure the city affords.
These discoveries are necessary in our lives, Trumbo believes, because we walk this way but once for a relatively short time. Indeed, Princess Ann realizes that she is living out a fairy tale and at midnight she will return to her previous reality – to be a princess once again.
On the other hand, for Joe Bradley, this return to reality proves stark and sacrificial. At journey’s end, he does not collect his prized interview with the wayward princess. He does not collect his $5,000. In fact, he emerges even deeper in debt to his employer and his photographer friend, Irving. Rome, temporarily a fantasy of escape, will become Joe’s everyday reality going forward. America is relegated once again to being his perpetual dream.
With Roman Holiday, Dalton Trumbo urges us to commit to life’s simple pleasures, whether an afternoon glass of champagne or dancing to a live band beneath the stars. An enduring populist truth emerges: that money and status alone cannot create meaning and happiness. Less can be more; in fact, less may be all there really is.
In 1953, this guide for daily living was still on display throughout Europe as the continent recovered from two devastating wars within a generation. Dalton Trumbo provides us just the briefest glimpse: noon to midnight on an average day in Rome, Italy. In the film’s final scene, Princess Ann continues on her path to a life of structured, subsidized luxury. Joe Bradley heads toward a life of material uncertainty. With their last glance, they both share knowing grins, no sign of despair as they turn away – maybe because from now on each of them truly has no idea what might happen next.
Tom Roznowski is a performer and writer living in Bloomington, Indiana. His new radio series PorchLight with Tom Roznowski airs at Saturdays at 8:00 PM on WFIU-FM