Ten Things I learned about history from watching Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

I get annoyed when people dismiss Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989, directed by Stephen Herek) as a superficial stoner movie about two stupid slackers. Yes, Bill S. Preston and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan are not depicted as the brightest dudes of all time; but they’re presented as a lot younger and more endearingly naive than, say, Wayne and Garth of Wayne’s World (1992) and the superior Wayne’s World 2 (1993). They don’t do drugs; they don’t drink, smoke or have sex. Neither are they as obnoxious, vacuous and repetitive as the boys from Dude, Where’s My Car (2000).

Bill and Ted work hard at what they care about, even if its music, not school. They also have an awful lot of heart; they look out for one another, they are in awe and wonder at the places they go and the sights that they see and in the end they produce a damn good history report – not only because of their historical helpers – but because they manage to show from the way they present their report; the way they interact with their historical figures and the comments which they make about them, that they have taken a genuine interest in their subject and that, finally, they understand and appreciate it.

The historical figures featured may not be portrayed one hundred percent accurately at all times, but Bill and Ted gave me enough of a hand-hold on some of these key points and people in history to then go on to independently expand my knowledge. I had a genuine interest to see Abraham Lincoln speak when I visited The Hall of Presidents in Disney, for example, because I knew him from Bill and Ted (and I knew that The Hall of Presidents itself was also mentioned in the film). The writers don’t exactly create detailed profiles of these figures – sometimes they’re not even accurate – but I grew up knowing who Socrates and Freud where before I left primary school. That gave me a nice air of superiority.

So here it is. My list of ten things I learned about history from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

  1. Socrates is not pronounced phonetically and as two syllables (So-crates). He was a philosopher who was a lot like Ozzy Osbourne, in that he was accused of corrupting young minds. Socrates was from a time where the world looked like the front cover of the album Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin, “There were many steps and columns”. He taught Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle. He wore a robe, was reasonably hairy and knew that “the only true wisdom lies in knowing that you know nothing.”
  2. Napoleon was short, easily angered and – if he was alive today – he would have gone directly to a Water Park at the first possible opportunity. Watching Napoleon’s big scenes also taught me the French words for ice cream and sh*t.
  3. The Wild West is a lot more stinky and dangerous than it looks in the movies (or from visits to Frontierland). Billy the Kid was very skilled with a gun. For more information you should probably watch Young Guns (1988).
  4. Joan of Arc was not Noah’s wife. She was French, incredibly young and totally kick-ass. If Bill and Ted had looked up what was going to happen to her they probably would have been reluctant to take her back to the fifteenth century.
  5. Beethoven’s apparent joy for music is enough to bring tears to your eyes. The scene where he is in the shopping mall and he discovers synthesisers is actually rather sweet. Although he should really be deaf in that scene and, presumably, shouldn’t be able to hear the electronic music. Beethoven lost his hearing by the time he was thirty, certainly by the time he had written Fϋr Elise, which he can be heard playing when he is abducted by the boys.
  6. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is February 12th. Lincoln is spelt L-I-N-C-O-L-N. The first line of the Gettysburg Address is “Four score and seven…” It became clear to me as a reasonably young child that Lincoln had a special aura about him and is respected and loved by the American people.
  7. Gengis Khan was the emperor of the Mongols, who ruled China (although Bill and Ted aren’t sure when exactly this happened.) He’s probably more accurately portrayed in this film than he is in Night at the Museum (2006). He may or may not have liked Twinkies, had he ever had the opportunity to try them.
  8. Sigmund Freud was an Austrian psychoanalyst who was always getting people to tell him about their mothers and answering their questions with his own questions as if he was being profound. He was a bit of a nerd.
  9. If you lived in Medieval times, the iron maiden was not a thing you would have wanted to experience. It’s not to do with rock music at all. Also, if you upset the wrong person you would probably get executed for it.
  10. Historical figures from different countries and different time periods all had varying views on the world and spoke in different languages to one another. I know this doesn’t sound like a big revelation, but these obvious details are often missed out for the sake of ease. It is also likely that it would be difficult for these people to understand or adapt to today’s modern world (circa 1988).

It’s very difficult to pigeonhole this film. It’s a comedy, but it exhibits flashes of intelligence. It’s fun for all the family, but contains a too-real Oedipus complex and some (French) swearing. It has strong elements of science fiction, but doesn’t worry about the logic and the morals behind time travel and resultant paradoxes in the way that ‘hard’ sci-fi might. It’s a buddy movie without over-egging it. The film fosters a genuine interest in history, whilst featuring two principal characters who, to begin with at least, don’t know anything about it. It’s so watchable that I can recite most of the script off by heart, and very occasionally, if the right snippet of history comes along, this can make me useful in a pub quiz.


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