A Historiographical Analysis of Bill & Ted
by Dr Jon Conlin
As the much-anticipated third instalment in the Bill & Ted franchise arrives in theatres, Dr Jonathan Conlin turns a historian’s eye on the 1989 film that introduced us to “the Great Ones”: Bill S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves). To what extent did the film represent a “Metalhead Turn” in historical thinking?
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) opened with time-traveller Rufus (comedian George Carlin) describing a future utopia in which war and conflict have been abolished and the planets brought into alignment, all thanks to the musical genius of “the Great Ones”, a.k.a. Bill and Ted of the heavy-metal band Wyld Stallyns. Unfortunately this civilisation is imperilled when the Great Ones’ lacklustre performance in high-school History threatens to break up Wyld Stallyns, with Ted (Reeves) facing imminent enrolment in an Alaskan military school. Rufus’ mission: to save the future by travelling back in time to San Dimas, California, to help Bill and Ted ace their final History report.
Their assignment is unapologetically presentist:
Express to the class how an important historical figure from each of your time periods would view the world of San Dimas, 1988.
Bill and Ted in turn travel back in time to “bag” a series of historical figures whose commentaries on late twentieth-century SoCal help the pair produce a most triumphant son et lumière presentation, astounding fellow students and faculty alike. Wyld Stallyns and the future of civilisation are saved.
Thirty years on, how does their choice of historical voices stand up? How “futuristic” were they as historians?
In many respects, it must be conceded, the Great Ones’ choice was heinously retardataire. The only non-European figure is the “very excellent barbarian” Genghis Khan, who is presented in orientalizing terms: violent and incontinent (as in, not in control of his urges). Whereas the heroes use various ruses to kidnap the other historical actors, Genghis Khan is lured away with a twinkie. Only one of the eight is female: “Miss of Arc”, initially confused with Noah’s wife. The achievement of this “most bodacious soldier, and general” who “totally rousted the English from France, and then…turned this dude Dauphin into a King!” clearly impresses both heroes, however.
The pair pay only one visit to England. Although they fail to “bag” anyone, this is more than a pit-stop. Indeed, within seconds of their time-travelling phonebooth landing the Great Ones are posing a fundamental question: who or what counts as “historic”?
Billy the Kid (to Socrates): Not bad, eh, So-Craytz? Where are we, dude?
Bill: England, fifteenth century.
Ted: We are in most excellent shape for our report.
Bill: Yeah, all we need is one more speaker from Medieval (Addressing a nearby peasant:)
Excuse me! Do you know where there are any personages of historic significance around here?
Peasant: (mutely points at castle behind Bill and Ted)
Bill: So…who shall we get for Medieval? How about that gnarly old goat dude? Ted??
Ted (lost in reverie, gazing at princesses on castle balcony): I’m in love, dude.
Bill: We gotta go. It’s a history report, not a babe report.
Ted: But Bill, those are historical babes…
While wincing at the loaded and infantilizing term “babe” and decrying their denial of agency to the princesses themselves, it is nonetheless evident that these are historians willing to question their curriculum.
The Great Ones also deserve kudos for their apparently gormless enquiry: rather than arriving with a target in mind (as with Abraham Lincoln, Ludwig Van Beethoven and the others) they are open to exploring what people at that point in human history and in that particular civilisation consider to be a “personage of historic significance.” Would that all historians were so open-minded.
According to the film’s production archive the original plan was for Bill and Ted to “bag” the “knarly goat dude” himself, overlooking King Henry VI and even the “historical babes”. That historiographical discovery of the peasant known as “the Subaltern Turn” was relatively new in 1989, and had yet to shape historical writing on western Europe. Though “John the Serf” remained on the cutting room floor, he is named in the end credits. Here at least Excellent Adventure was, perhaps unsurprisingly, ahead of its time. It would be some years yet before historians began paying attention to the likes of “John the Serf”.
Excellent Adventure is of interest not only for what it tells us about how world history was understood in 1980s America, it also critiques metanarratives that present our consumerist age as the zenith or “end of history”. Bill and Ted are proud of their civilisation: a sun-drenched, high-tech and high-consumption way of life. They expect everyone from Socrates to Sigmund Freud to share in that admiration, and it is with that expectation in mind that they bring the eight historical figures to San Dimas Mall: the pride of their civilisation, “where people of today’s world hang out”.
Instead of following this script the historical personages, suddenly confronted with unimaginable choices (ice-skating in summer, synthesizers that replace whole orchestras) and promises of unlimited “self-improvement” (sports equipment and exercise classes), run riot. Played for laughs as a series of vignettes that snowball into a Keystone Kops-style chase around the mall, the sequence proposes a different question from that set by Mr Ryan, the Great Ones’ long-suffering History teacher: “What lies behind a civilisation that celebrates endless consumer choice as the summum bonum?”
Bill & Ted Face the Music was released in UK cinemas 14 September. Wyld Stallyns couldn’t keep this historian away.