I’m not sure how many people know, but one of my most favourite movies is the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Aside from being really catchy with fantastic musical talent, they kind of found a really sneaky way to take one of the cornerstone stories of the new Testament and weave it into something that really… has almost nothing to do with God. Boiled down to the raw bones, it’s a story about best friends torn apart by political circumstances that got bigger than either one of them. They’ve started a revolution, and while the face-man is content to short-sightedly revel in the glory and good intentions of the movement, his right hand man is skeptical of the consequences that they’ll have to deal with when their opposition brings out the big guns and their following gets too large to keep their original message clear.
Carl Anderson’s Judas is more or less the hero of this story, the first one of Jesus’ inner circle to realize that they’re building something they can’t control anymore. He’s begun isolating himself from the group, trying to find the courage and the words to confront his friend and let him know that they’re heading down a destructive path. When he does find his tongue, Jesus doesn’t want to hear it and agitates their messy divide. While the other apostles are content with the social status that being in Jesus’s inner circle grants them, Judas is the only one who really knows him and is willing to call him on his shit. Eventually he makes the tough choice that his comrade is out of control and can’t be reigned in with reason, and agrees to work with the authorities to bring him down. Ultimately it they abuse his trust and dole out disproportionate punishment to make an example out of him, and Judas can’t live with the choice he made.
Jesus’s arc is very interesting as well, just in that he’s not played as a solemn victim through the story. At the beginning of the movie, he’s very content with the too-big-to-fail following of young upstarts he’s amassed. When Judas warns him that they’re setting themselves up for a fall, he doesn’t want to hear it. It’s not until the crowds start asking him if he’s willing to die for them that he realizes that’s even a possibility, and when he sees all of Judas’ predictions coming to pass that he starts realizing martyring himself is the only way they’ll salvage anything out of the movement. And he’s not completely on board with it, he has a great moment of self-reflection wondering if it’s worth it at all, but he’s already past the point of no return.
And I specify the 1973 release of the movie because the 2000 version really is a testament to different direction can turn one script into a completely new story. Instead of featuring Judas isolated from the group trying to find the heart to give a joyous Jesus the hard truth, the 2000 version opens with Judas aggressively dogging after a solitary, downtrodden Jesus. Some people prefer one version and some prefer the other, but I was very disappointed at how this choice removes the sympathy the audience might have for Judas early on. There’s no point in the film where Jerome Pradon seems to have the same level of regret or moral discomfort that Carl Anderson displayed, and he comes across more as a bully to the melancholy Glenn Carter Jesus than a friend with his best interests at heart.
One of the most powerful scenes in the ‘73 version is at the Last Supper, where Jesus and Judas leave the group to just have it out. Previously they’d butted heads and kind of had flighty chest-puffing matches until Judas lost his nerve and took a walk to avoid a full-on confrontation, but this is the turning point where he just can’t take it anymore and lays out everything he feels in no uncertain terms. It really cements that the rest of the apostles are kind of glory chasers, but Judas is the only one with real emotional involvement is Jesus as a person. I feel like this scene can’t have the same impact if you don’t start out the story with the idea that Judas and Jesus are, or last least were at one point, very close friends.
I’m of the opinion that it makes the titular song fit that much better, basically as the scene where his best buddy who went through this whole emotional, political rollercoaster with him, for better or worse, comes back from the dead to say “What’d I tell you, bro?”