You might think that having a terminal degree in history makes me stuffy. Some of my students might think that is the case. I try not to be. I learned that you cannot take things too seriously, particularly your chosen profession. One should always be professional, and I strive for that in everything that I do. But if you cannot also be light hearted at times, you will break. I have seen it happen to others, and it is often painful. One of the ways I attempted to take the edge off being a full time historian was by writing a humorous time travel novel. It never saw the light of day. The company that was on the cusp of bringing it to print went out of business before publication, and I was left bereft of a lifelong dream of being a published author (on my own). Maybe someday. In the meantime, if it is chronology bending high-jinks you are looking for, check out Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).
Imagine a distant future where the bedrock of order and stability is based on two high school flunkies with nary a brain cell between them, struggling to start a misspelled (purposely? Who knows?) rock band called “Wyld Stallions.” That should give you a sense of the tone of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Rufus (George Carlin) is an agent of sorts from 600 years from now sent to make sure their society’s saviors pass their all important oral history presentation. The two figures are the eponymous characters, Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves). Their names make them sound more like stock brokers than two dolts that think St. Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, but then again character names are often the least creative aspect of the cinema arts. Their teacher tells them that if they do not come up with an extraordinarily good performance that they will both flunk the class. Rufus reveals to them how important this event is to his future, but never fully explains why outside of some vague allusion to how it will result in their lives taking a turn for the worse. In order to prevent this from happening, he uses his phone booth time machine (yes, Doctor Who fans, you can roll your eyes) to see history for themselves because that would help, right? He then leaves the device with the teens after showing them how it works, an act which accidentally drags Napoleon (Terry Camilleri) with them back to 1988. This gives Bill and Ted the idea of collecting other historical figures throughout time to use in their presentation. These include Billy the Kid (Dan Shor), Socrates (Tony Steedman), Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis), Genghis Khan (Al Leong), St. Joan of Arc (Jane Wiedlin), Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron), and Ludwig van Beethoven (Clifford David), not to mention the already arrived Napoleon. And somehow they fit all these people, including themselves, into one phone booth. Now, if it had been as straight forward as snatching a bunch of famous people from the past, sticking them on a stage, and having them do history stuff, this film would not be as interesting, or funny. Before Bill and Ted have the opportunity to display them all to the entire school (because apparently they go to a school where history presentations are given en masse), they take the temporally displaced persons to the mall while they go to track down Napoleon. The Corsican former Emperor of France, originally being left in the charge of Ted’s younger brother Deacon (Frazier Bain), had wandered off after treating Deacon rudely. Where do you find Napoleon in 1988? At the Waterloo waterpark, of course. Knowing a little bit about history makes that joke more funny, I suppose. While Bill and Ted meet their Waterloo (even funnier), the others are left to their own devices at the mall and get into all manner of appropriate and perplexing trouble. So I get how Abraham Lincoln being mistaken for a guy in costume at an old-time photo booth would be chucklesome. I do not understand why St. Joan of Arc would be drawn to an aerobics class and want to lead it herself. Whatever the case, they all land in jail, and Bill and Ted must bust them out, which they do in time to give the, ahem, most excellent presentation. Hence the future is secured, and as a reward Rufus brings them the princesses they had encountered during their adventures as prom dates.
As alluded to above, what makes Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure work (it seems weird typing that) is how they put these historical characters into ridiculous situations. I mentioned how some ideas worked better than others, but not once did it ever veer into weightiness. You know what I mean, right? They did not have that scene where Napoleon gets to the future and decides to try to take over the world, or Abraham Lincoln delivering the real Gettysburg Address to an auditorium full of high schoolers who would not care anyway even if they knew it was the actual sixteenth president of the United States. This is both a blessing and a curse, and I have to admit that while I found the film funny in places, the historian in me did rebel at a few things. It was more than just the modern window panes on the castle where Bill and Ted found the princesses. It was more like Genghis Khan being portrayed as a club wielding, out-of-control barbarian, or Napoleon being a selfish jerk. At the same time, such a movie does not have time to explain in depth what these people were actually like. Instead, they take the most basic, stereotypical seedling of knowledge that the populace may (or may not) have about such people and uses that for people to have a clue as to what is going on. That is understandable, but also as problematic as when Bill and Ted hug each other and then quickly separate, calling each other “fag.” You do not need to resort to slurs (even in the 1980s) to signal to an audience that two people are not gay, just like you can have St. Joan of Arc without making her some dewey-eyed girl hungry for a following.
Talking about St. Joan of Arc shall be my Catholic entrée into Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. When she is taken by Bill and Ted, they find her praying in armor in a chapel. So, score a point on the good side for that part. It is downhill from there, particularly as the time travelers reach out their hand to her from the point at which a Crucifix would be over an altar. She takes the hand as if God Himself had come down. Next we see her in Bill’s house dressed in the style of your typical 1980s teenager, enjoying some of the trappings of modern life. And there is the scene in the mall where she inexplicably decides that she must lead an aerobics class, shoving the original instructor out of the way. I would not call these scenes sacrilegious, but they are rather unfair to the “Maid of Orléans.” It may seem unbelievable today, almost bordering on a lie, but there was a time a little over half a millennium ago when England lay claim to large portions of northern France. That is until St. Joan of Arc received a call from God to lead the French people in getting rid of what was, at times, an oppressive English occupation of lands over which their claim was increasingly tenuous. When she was eventually captured she was put before a Church tribunal that found her guilty of the heresy (at that time) of wearing men’s clothing, though she always claimed that it was to better protect her from being raped. In any case, she went into battle with a banner instead of a sword, and was always meant to be a symbol to inspire others rather than a true warrior. Despite all this, she was burned at the stake as a heretic, an act the church quickly repented of twenty-five years later (that is fast for the Church), and eventually made her a saint. That is some real history for you, and why I have trouble with her portrayal in the film.
All told, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is not a bad movie. Historical problems aside, it actually using time travel in some pretty clever and funny ways. It is rated PG, and that is in keeping with the light hearted approach throughout. I have no idea how this relates to how Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) as I do not remember it, or Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020) as I did not see it. I will go out on a limb, though, and say there is some correlation as there are actually some neat bits of writing in the first installment that one would hope are carried through the others. Still, if you are a movie producer interested in doing something with a hint of history in it, please contact me first.