"You don't have to follow orders," pleads Brian (Graham Chapman), about to be crucified in the 1979 Biblical spoof Monty Python's Life of Brian. "I like following orders," growls the Roman centurion.
It's one of the comedy's jabs of dark insight, and I mention it to Terry Jones. The Python who directed Brian is on the phone from England promoting its 25th-anniversary re-release. "It's very appropriate to what's going on at the moment, isn't it?" replies Jones, referring to the abuse of imprisoned Iraqis.
Jones is cheerfully frank about why Brian was re-released in the States in April, not August, as originally planned (it opens Fri., May 14, at the Oaks Theater): In the wake of the success of The Passion of the Christ, "The cash till started floating by our eyes," says Jones. "Pure commercial greed."
But his post-Python career keeps Jones' eyes elsewhere, too: On the quite distant past and the all-too-with-us present. For one, he's continually popping up on the telly, most recently with the myth-debunking Medieval Lives mini-series he wrote and presented this year on The History Channel. The author of several books on the Middle Ages, the Oxford-educated Jones is also looking forward to publication this summer of his Who Murdered Chaucer?, which he calls an "iconoclastic history" speculating that the death of the Canterbury Tales author involved skullduggery linked to royal succession.
Reflecting on history closer to home, Jones bemusedly recalls the fuss by religious types that greeted Life of Brian on its release, with denunciations in the U.S. and suppression in Great Britain. But as its defenders pointed out, the film is "heretical, not blasphemous," says Jones. "It's making fun of the propensity of mankind to split into little sects."
An occasional columnist for British publications including The Observer, Jones is also tuned to the wars on terror and in Iraq, including recent revelations that jailed Iraqis were abused by American and British military personnel. "I just think it's so funny when you see Blair and Rumsfeld pointing fingers" at guards who, Jones says, were plainly following instructions to soften up prisoners for interrogation. "Of course they were just obeying orders. .... And to blame the guys on the spot is just sheer hypocrisy."