“Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.”
Ask most people nowadays to name a Keanu Reeves movie, and it’s likely they’ll say The Matrix. But for a lot of us, our first introduction to the actor — and the most memorable — was his role as Ted “Theodore” Logan, the more dimwitted of a pair of high school slackers in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, alongside Alex Winters as Bill S. Preston, Esquire. These spiritual cousins of Jeff Spicoli were faced with a most heinous situation, in that they were doomed to flunk their history class unless they turned in a stellar performance on their oral final exam, in which they were to expound on what historical figures might think of San Dimas, California (their home town). Luckily for the daffy duo, a follower from the future played by George Carlin came along with a time-traveling phone booth to help them out.
“Gentlemen… we’re history.”
I will admit my love for this film may be somewhat irrational. I am aware it’s just a stupid comedy with stupid characters, with a silly plot and incredibly goofy gags. But whenever I watch it I can’t help but laugh all the way through.
But no matter how silly a film is, if you watch it enough, it’ll raise a few questions. There are a few things to consider about the adventures of the Wyld Stallyns, ranging from the slightly satirical bent it takes towards the parental units, to the question of just how somebody winds up with Ted as their name and Theodore as their nickname. We could take a look at how Valley Lingo swept the nation in the late 80s and early 90s. We could even look at how utterly convenient it is that they were given an assignment that was so perfectly suited to the use of the time machine.
“Billy, you are dealing with the oddity of time travel with the greatest of ease.”
But, perhaps oddly for such an inherently silly movie, the question that is raised in my mind is a bit more philosophical. It’s also the most obvious one, as it’s the one the film asks outright: What would historical figures think of our society today?
Obviously, some would simply be utterly baffled. It’s doubtful even a smart man like Socrates would adjust immediately without some intervening steps. We’re not light years beyond the ancient Greeks, but we’re far enough that a lot of it would be wholly unfamiliar. Many of the things we take for granted would be complete novelties; the electric light is a terrific example of something that would be revolutionary to them, yet goes unnoticed by us. A carriage journey in the late 1800s would travel perhaps 10 miles per hour in good conditions; modern highway speeds are seven times that. A week’s journey for even the recent past is literally a day trip nowadays. To pick an easy and choleric example, the average journey time for the Oregon Trail — after previous journeys made it easier by establishing ferries — was 140 days in 1859. Google Maps today says that the journey from Independence, MO to Oregon City, OR can be done in 26 hours. Take a couple of buddies to take turns driving, and you can get a 99% reduction in travel time compared to the original travelers, and almost nobody dies of dysentery while traveling today.
“This is a dude who, 700 years ago, totally ravaged China, and who, we were told, 2 hours ago, totally ravaged Oshman’s Sporting Goods.”
Of course, just as common as those things that would be novelties to them, or vast improvements over the equivalents of those days are those things they wouldn’t recognize at all. Consider the case of Genghis Khan in the shopping mall. Genghis had no conception of what baseball was, and may not have had much concept of a competitive sport or recreational exercise at all. (I am reminded of another great time-traveling comedy, Back to the Future: Part III, where the frontiersmen are baffled at Doc Brown’s revelation that people walk for fun.) To him, a baseball bat isn’t a toy… it’s a remarkably well-crafted battle club. Technology and culture are both constantly changing; between the two of them, there is no shortage of things that somebody from one hundred to one thousand years ago would find utterly alien. In some cases, I’m tempted to think that the newest inventions are those that they would be least confused by. With someone from, say, Beethoven’s era having nothing even remotely close to the concept of a smart phone, there would be no preconceived notions and it could be explained starting with the most basic aspects.
“What is a geek?”
And of course we have to wonder what they would think about what we think of them. The key thing about historical figures is that they’re all pretty well known; it’s kind of a defining characteristic. We’ve been telling stories about these people since they made their names known. Sometimes accurately. Often not. And in the specific cases of the eight individuals in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, all but Socrates have had major feature films both before and since this film (Socrates has to settle for a TV movie). Would they approve of how they were depicted? Some might be humbled by it, some might find it added to their ego. Some might be confused or irritated. What would Lincoln think of an Irish-Brit playing him, and what would he think about the critical success of a film based on his life? Would Billy the Kid accept or deny the wild reputation his films give him? I suspect Napoleon probably wouldn’t be very happy; he seldom comes off well in these things.
“Deacon, do you realize you have just stranded one of Europe’s greatest leaders in San Dimas?” “He was a dick.”
Not that I really go thinking a lot of deep thoughts while watching Bill and Ted. No, my enjoyment of the bodacious duo is considerably more relaxed than that; it’s a perfect film for when you want to watch something and not think. But even a thoughtless film can be thought-provoking in the end.
“These two great gentlemen are dedicated to a proposition which was true in my time, just as it’s true today. Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes!”