Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema

Roman Holiday and the Brief Encounter Genre

Asking a film buff which film is his favorite can lead to a lot of hemming and hawing about how difficult it is to choose one, or even a top ten. But I've had my answer ready to go since about 1993, when I first saw Roman Holiday, the 1953 romantic comedy starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn and directed by William Wyler. 

I can’t write an essay claiming that this is the greatest film ever made (something I could do for the next 3 films on my favorites list), but I firmly believe that if you're going to engage in an activity as self-indulgent as making a list of favorite films, you need to pick a number one, and you need to be able to articulate why. Deciding what constitutes great film is profoundly subjective. What each person responds to both positively and negatively in a movie has as much to do with their life experience, their psychological development and emotional state when they see the film, and the number of other films they have seen in their lifetime, as it does with the content and craftsmanship of any particular picture. After all, some of the most aesthetically beautiful movies are real clunkers, and some of the grandest, most well-constructed films often don’t have the truth or magic that a cheaper, sloppier, minor film from the same year may have had—at least for any particular viewer.

Roman Holiday is by no means cheap or sloppy or minor—it was one of the biggest films of 1953, and one of the best-remembered films by one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. It introduced American audiences to the young Audrey Hepburn, and it received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Actress (which Hepburn won), and Best Screenplay (which went to Ian McLellen Hunter, John Dighton, and the uncredited, blacklisted Dalton Trumbo—who has posthumously been given credit on restored prints). But although it is much-loved and well-rewarded, Roman Holiday is less well-known than most of the other films in my top 20 or even in my top 100.
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Roman Holiday is, first and foremost, a romantic comedy. The story concerns a young princess (Hepburn) on a goodwill tour of Europe who is bored with her royal duties and craves some adventure. She escapes into Rome incognito, where she is discovered by a jaded American newspaperman (Peck). He considers her the big scoop he needs to get out of Rome and secure a job at a major paper in America. The film is funny and warm, and the two leads are fantastic, as is Eddie Albert in a hilarious supporting role. But what makes Roman Holiday my favorite movie is that it is the best example of my favorite genre, which I call “the brief encounter picture” (after the great David Lean/Noel Coward film from 1945).

Brief encounter pictures are films about people who meet for a short period of time but form a connection that effects them profoundly. Though the characters in these films rarely if ever see each other again, their lives are forever changed because of this chance meeting. Often, their differing backgrounds make them an unexpected and unlikely pair—for instance, Hepburn's young, inexperienced princess and Peck's serious, cynical newspaperman. They usually have a romantic or sexual connection that often goes unconsummated, as it does in Brief Encounter.

Some of the best examples, besides Roman Holiday and Brief Encounter, include George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County, John Carney’s Once, and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Brief encounter films are usually about two people in a romantic context, but not always. I would argue the John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club belongs in this group. They often center on young people—though Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor is a wonderful example where the protagonist is a man in his 60s. They are most often small-scale, low-budget pictures, though you can’t find a bigger production than James Cameron’s Titanic, which is a quintessential brief encounter picture. Casablanca is the story of two brief encounters; one in Paris where Rick and Ilsa fall in love only to be separated by the German occupation, and the second when they meet up again in Casablanca and are able to get their relationship back to a place where, they’ll “always have Paris.”

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What draws me to this little sub-genre and makes it my favorite kind of film? I can think of two explanations. I'm not a religious person, and the only experiences I've had that I would call “spiritual,” in which I've felt connected to concepts or forces larger than myself, have involved a one-to-one connection with another person. When I first saw Roman Holiday as the bottom half of an Audrey Hepburn double feature at the Gramercy Theatre in New York City, I thought a lot about my first love and wondered who I would have become if I had not briefly crossed paths with her. 
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Long before I had even kissed a girl, I saw Jerry Schatzberg's 1984 film No Small Affair, an amusing little coming-of-age picture with a wonderful farewell scene at an airport. It's a minor work with some pretty cheesy '80s trappings, but it strikes a major chord with a deep truth at its core about first love and intimacy. More universally, though, this genre of film is my favorite because the movie-going experience itself is a brief encounter. When we see a movie, we spend just a couple of hours with the characters and events depicted on the screen. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, we take our brief glimpses into these worlds and move on, but every now and then we see a film that presents us with a truth or stirs in us an emotion that irrevocably alters our perspectives. We carry these films around with us forever like touchstones. We may revisit them occasionally, we may feel differently about them as the decades pass, but the initial experience will stay with us forever, even though it only represents about two hours of our lives.

At the end of Roman Holiday, in a wordless scene, Gregory Peck walks silently down the long hall of the embassy. All we can hear is the sound of his footsteps on the marble floor. This image reminds me of how I often feel walking out of a theater, when I'm the last one to leave after the credits: silent, contemplative, alone with the experience of the movie, thinking about what I just saw and how it might affect my perspective on life. 
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Roman Holiday
is a film that requires you to surrender to the style of its time. Some modern audiences have trouble relaxing into films from the 1950s, a time when movie narratives developed at a slower and more deliberate pace. The film is laugh-out-loud funny in many scenes, especially if you watch it in a theatre with a crowd, but it's not like the comedies of today, where laughs are attempted almost every minute. The romantic comedies of Hollywood’s golden age emphasize the romance over the comedy, and I believe that ratio makes them better. I get swept up in the sincerity of the feelings developing between the characters, and when a funny scene like Roman Holiday's “mouth of truth” comes along, the laughter is a delightful release.

If you do allow yourself to settle into this picture, few films offer a more authentic representation of how a brief encounter actually feels. The comedic convention of Peck having to engage in deception in order to spend time with Hepburn is just the kind of narrative heightening that enables a two-hour movie to get across feelings that would take much longer to develop in reality. For those filmmakers and critics who reject the sensationalism of Hollywood storytelling in favor of “realism,” my arguments will not be accepted. Much as I love kitchen-sink drama, cinéma vérité, and other less glamorous approaches to filmmaking, I will always connect more directly to the heightened reality of films from Hollywood, especially older Hollywood. Movies like Roman Holiday should play on giant screens that tower over you and fill your field of vision. They should be larger than life.
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I want Roman Holiday to be the last film I see before I leave this earth. If I were to be able to design my own funeral, I would have all my friends come to a beautiful theatre, watch this movie together, and reflect on not only their time with me, but also their time with each other, and with all the people they have crossed paths with in life, both the long-term relationships and the brief encounters. For me, this is what life is all about—relationships and movies!