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One of my ever-lasting passions is for movies which toy with the space-time continuum, or time travel. There are tons of them out there, so many that they can even be broken down into sub-categories. But the reason Hollywood keeps making them (and movie-goers keep watching them) is the very human urge to search for something better. This is escapism at its finest, because it actually poses an alternative outcome, even though it often turns out that what the protagonist had in the first place was actually best (“There’s no place like home”.)

Some films travel back in time (The Time Machine), some project forward (Back to the Future) and some are actually stuck in time (Groundhog Day) – but all pose the eternally tantalizing question, What If?

Of the three, traveling to the past seems safest because we know what happened, or at least we think we know what happened. And with the seeming advantage of hindsight we are emboldened to improve on things a little. But as countless heroes and heroines have learned to their peril, tweaking just one thing can set off a disastrous series of interconnected events. Remember Doc’s dire warnings to Marty about meddling with the “space-time continuum”? He nearly erased his own existence.

Still the past is more comforting than the future, with its inherent unknowns. Perhaps that’s why movies set in the past seem to be more upbeat and optimistic (at least in the end), while those set in the future invariably present a darkly ominous alternative. Hardly uplifting!

Producer/Director Frank Capra was a master of this theme in the thirties and forties, but there are some more recent entries in this category that have made it an even richer genre.

Here are a few of my favorites. These are the ones I’ve actually seen, though I tend to lose interest after one or two prequels or sequels. (There are scads more of course, and Sci-Fi is a whole ‘nother matter). I’m more into nostalgia. Go figure.

All have morals and lessons to be learned, as well as being thoroughly entertaining.

My current favorite is Woody Allen’s delightful Midnight in Paris. In addition to an incredible period jazz soundtrack and peopled by literally dozens of Paris’ celebrated ex-patriots of the twenties, it weaves the subtle message that no matter how divine the age you are living in, there is always somebody yearning for an earlier time. “Golden Age” is indeed a very subjective term. Even Eve wasn’t satisfied, and there was no earlier time for her to yearn for!

It could be argued that some of our tours embody the concept of time travel by incorporating living history programs and reenactors at strategic locations along the way. These are first person experiences – not vicarious, as on the screen – where you have the opportunity to interact with historical figures. How else can you actually meet a member of the Corps of Discovery, and question him about what it was like to set off into the unknown?

Of course to fully appreciate the experience we must also step back in time. At Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota, we visit Colonel Custer’s home. He’s not there, but the year is 1874, and he and Libby are merely out for a horseback ride and could return at any moment. We are not taking an “old house tour” but honored guests being graciously welcomed into the commander’s home, by a gossipy housemaid or loyal cavalry private.

These experiences, though not exactly time travel, provide different dimensions leading to deeper understanding. We travel in air conditioned comfort and are not obliged to paddle a boat, or sleep on the hard ground through a rainy night. But we are truly walking where history happened, with the characters who preceded us making it real as only they can. There is nothing like “being there”.

The common thread – in time travel movies or interpretive travel experiences – is a new insight into something; about the past, about the world, or about yourself. What better way to travel, than through time?

Lost Horizon 1937
The Wizard of Oz 1939
It’s a Wonderful Life 1947
A Christmas Carol 1951 (many versions, including silent, but this is my favorite)
Brigadoon 1954
The Time Machine 1960 (also many versions)
Planet of the Apes 1968 series
Star Wars 1977 series
Peggy Sue Got Married 1986
Field of Dreams 1989
Star Trek 1989 series
Groundhog Day 1993
Multiplicity 1996
Pleasantville 1998
The Family Man 2000
Kate and Leopold 2001
The Lake House 2006
Midnight in Paris 2011