Continuing with the story, after the princess returns to the embassy palace, she is confronted by her three aides (a retired general, a countess, and an elderly man), who ask her to explain her absence for the benefit of the king and queen back in their home country. One of these men solemnly reminds her of her duty. But Princess Anne has grown up during this one-day escapade out into the real world. Yesterday, she was a girl, controlled by her over-zealous aide the countess. This night, as she stands before them, she is a mature woman, capable from now on of making her own decisions. She responds in a firm tone: “If I were not completely aware of my duty to my family and my country, I would not have come back tonight, nor indeed ever again.” The movie viewing audience clearly understands this to mean that if she were free to have her way, she would run off with Gregory Peck. After a pause to let this sink in, she politely gives them leave to withdraw for the evening.
The primary conflict of the movie, containing an element of entertaining good humor, is the character question of whether or not Gregory Peck will selfishly cash-in on his one-day romp with the princess through the city of Rome and write a sensational news story, or whether he will take the noble and honorable route to protect the reputation of the woman he has fallen in love with.
At a press conference in the embassy reception hall the next day after their previous night’s parting, standing at the front of a greeting line, Gregory Peck assures the princess the secret of their Roman holiday is safe with him, and Eddie Albert humorously hands her the packet of photographs he secretly took of her all that previous day. The final ending of the movie has Audrey Hepburn nodding her head slightly toward Gregory Peck in a gesture to say a last goodbye, with a radiantly beaming smile but an inwardly broken heart, then turning away with her entourage to go back into the interior of the palace, and Gregory Peck manfully but sadly walking alone out of the palace reception hall.
But the underlying, secondary theme of the movie has much more power. The night before, after the princess dismisses her aides, she is standing alone in her room looking out the window at the city of Rome below, thinking about the life she will never enjoy there with Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). She has made the hard choice to return to being a princess. She realizes she will never see Joe Bradley again (she still does not know until the following day’s press conference that he is a reporter), will never sit leisurely out on a sidewalk café sipping champagne, never ride through the city on the back of a motor scooter, and never again go dancing at night along the waterfront barges, as a regular person, as a non-princess. In her large and opulently decorated embassy bedroom, she is again utterly alone. She will take up her demanding duties the next day, attending the aforementioned press conference, a trade relations appearance, and a diplomatic reception.
The powerful thing about this secondary theme is that we agree with it. The screenwriters and producers of this movie were not fools. They would not write a bad ending to this movie that everyone would be disappointed with, on purpose. Roman Holiday was nominated for ten Academy Awards©, including Best Picture (Audrey Hepburn won for Best Actress). The enduring high acclaim and stature of this classic movie validates its theme. Few movie viewers then or now would say that Audrey Hepburn’s character should have walked away from her duties and responsibilities as a royal princess and heir to the throne of her country, and gone off with Gregory Peck. We agree with her choice, even though it cost her the love of her life. Even the two main characters in the movie agree with her choice. Both Princess Anne and Joe Bradley know deep down that if they had walked away from duty and right living, they would eventually regret it.
If one thinks about it, this is an amazingly profound realization. How is it that we agree so readily about the decision for duty, honor, and responsibility over the pursuit of personal happiness? How can this natural moral law rise to elevated precedence over everything else, including our personal goals and wishes? How can the natural moral law be that important? How can there be values in life worth making sacrifices for, over and above our personal desires? How can “doing the right thing” command our respect and loyalty to this degree of self-sacrifice? Why does this theme repeat itself in so many great movies, achieving so much popular acceptance and acclaim, yet be so morally demanding?