Innocent, joyful romances aren't really what movies are about. There is little dramatic tension in stories about couples falling happily in love. It is the struggle that counts. The recriminations, the misunderstandings, the jealousy and family feuding are what give romantic stories their traction: witness Romeo and Juliet. However, within films, there are often moments in which outside events cease to matter and the lovers are able to create their own magical, self-enclosed world.
William Wyler wasn't in any way regarded as as a "romantic" director. Look through his filmography and what leap out are films like The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), his brilliant but surprisingly bleak account of the experiences of three servicemen returning to civilian life after the second world war, and Ben-Hur (1959), a sword and sandal epic best remembered for its chariot race. Roman Holiday (1953) was one of his few romances. The screenplay, by John Dighton and Dalton Trumbo, is barbed and multilayered. Gregory Peck is an American journalist in Rome a handsome but cynical figure. Audrey Hepburn is a pampered European princess who shrugs off her minders and goes AWOL in Rome. Some neat plot twists throw the couple together, neither knowing much about the other. Both have their own agendas. Peck is a reporter who needs a story about the missing princess. Hepburn is slumming it, but knows she will eventually return to her life of privilege. Nonetheless, the scenes shared by the couple are blithely and giddily romantic.
What makes Roman Holiday so fresh, apart from the obvious rapport between the elfin Hepburn and the darkly handsome Peck, is the way Wyler uses his locations. The Italian neo-realists had long advocated shooting on the streets and telling real people's stories. Their movies, made in the aftermath of war, were invariably grim affairs about impoverished old men (Umberto D) or fathers who couldn't find and keep jobs. (Bicycle Thieves) Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City showed the Italian capital under the thrall of the Nazis. Wyler, by contrast, captures the magic and mystery of the city. It is the perfect backdrop for the romance between Peck and Hepburn. There is a spontaneity and exuberance about their scenes together that transcends their own little deceptions. (Hepburn doesn't realise that Peck has arranged for a photographer to follow them around the city.)
Wyler's two leads seemed so enraptured by one another that some speculated they must have been having an affair. "Actually, you have to be a little bit in love with your leading man and vice versa," Hepburn later said. "If you're going to portray love, you have to feel it. You can't do it any other way. But you don't carry it beyond the set."
The film's most famous sequence is when Hepburn rides off on Peck's Vespa. He ends up on the seat behind her as she careers around town. The scene is joyful and anarchic. She has minimal control over the vehicle. She and Peck are like mischievous kids. All their pretensions and affectations are forgotten as they cling to one another, riding the wrong way round roundabouts, scattering pedestrians, terrifying bus drivers and startling the patrons of the local street cafe.