One of the highlights for Star Wars fans this year was getting to hear the iconic voice of James Earl Jones as he crossed lightsabers with his former master in the Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi, pitting the man who put the bone-shaking bass in the Sith Lord’s voice against Ewan McGregor’s comparatively youthful Jedi master of the prequel films for the first time.
Except… as we would learn after the series had completed, that wasn’t James Earl Jones’ voice at all. The Ukrainian software program Respeecher was used to replicate Jones’ performance as Vader in previous Star Wars films, ensuring that future projects could continue replicating his voice forever. This has been no little cause for controversy. But with Jones’ announced retirement from the role of cinema’s most notorious villain this year, the artificial Vader is all you’ll hear going forward.
We’d like to take this opportunity, then, not to mourn the loss of a great role, but to celebrate its too-often unspoken highs. The moments in Jones’ generation-spanning career as Vader which lent his full thespian weight to the character. Not merely a tone, but a role inhabited and performed. This is not a list of Vader’s most well-known lines through the Star Wars franchise, but the ones which highlight James Earl Jones’ versatility and skill as an actor within a character who often, by design, appears robotic. The moments where a man- or, pointedly, the absence of a man- can be heard behind Vader’s inflexible mask of death. This is the range of Jones, as Vader, which no machine can replicate just yet.
“Rebels. Not more than six of you. I can feel your presence. Come to me, Rebels. Traitors. Unleash your anger. It brings you closer to the Dark Side.” -Star Wars: The Interactive Video Board Game
James Earl Jones’ only performance as Darth Vader in the 1990s was also the last time he would be portrayed in costume by David Prowse – the Star Wars Interactive Video Board Game, a 1996 Hasbro product where up to six players could enact a daring mission aboard a Star Destroyer as Force Sensitive members of the Rebel Alliance. As Vader, Jones and Prowse would tempt the players through the video to join him on the Dark Side, enticing them to use their powers in service of the Empire.
It’s a very different Vader we see here than the one we know in the movies: soft-spoken, and almost hypnotic, as he entices these strangers aboard his ship to abandon their mission and give in to their basest hatred. It’s a performance which almost evokes Dracula more than Vader, focused on his ability to lure others to his cause. The Vader as Recruiter is a side to him we rarely see elsewhere, and one which suits him as the heir apparent to the Emperor who once orchestrated Vader’s own fall.
“I want the Rebels located and identified if it means searching every household in the system.” -Star Wars Holiday Special
Vader’s appearance in the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special is brief, but significant: his quick dutiful appearance here sets the stakes for the entire special, as his order for a door-to-door sweep of Kashyyyk for the Rebels on the run leads the Empire to Chewbacca’s family home. But most importantly, unlike the original film, which leaves him uncredited to enhance the character’s mystique, this would be the first time a Star Wars production acknowledged James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader. It’s a credit which, as we’ve seen in Obi-Wan Kenobi, would continue to honor him even after retiring the role, as the vocal originator of the role.
For many, including George Lucas himself, the Star Wars Holiday Special was a mark of shame. But we can only imagine that it was at least nice for Jones to finally see the credit he was due from the biggest hit to that date in cinematic history.
"Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director." -Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
One of the most controversial moments in Rogue One: A Star Wars story was Vader's quip to Director Krennic after putting him in his place with a disciplinary Force Choke. It felt, to some, that Vader was being "too funny." But what Jones provides in this moment is some enlightening character work for the moment in which this scene is set. An armorless Vader has just been disturbed from unrestful slumber in his own dark palatial home by an unwelcome visitor with an irksome report. The Vader we see here, quickly assembled for Imperial company, is not all together himself: while his voice quakes with pain, Vader is still shaking off the dream of the wry, irreverent Jedi Knight he used to be.
“Anakin Skywalker was weak. I destroyed him.” -Star Wars: Rebels
Some of Jones’ final performances as Vader were in a handful of momentous episodes of the Disney XD animated series Star Wars: Rebels, set within the 5 years leading up to the original film. A climactic encounter in the Season 2 finale with his own former Padawan, Ahsoka Tano, leaves the lost former Jedi with the impression of just how far her master had fallen. Nothing of the man she cared for as her own family existed within this blackened shell, and the hollowness of Vader echos as coldly as ever when he intones that Anakin is no more. Ahsoka, though she wishes with all her might that it wasn’t so, can only believe him.
“Inside your head.” -The Rise of Skywalker
Barring any surprise developments, these three words in Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker may be the last three words James Earl Jones will ever speak as Darth Vader. Or perhaps, we should say, as Emperor Palpatine. This chilling sequence which opens the final chapter of the Skywalker Saga unites Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor, Andy Serkis’s Snoke, and James Earl Jones’s Vader as manifestations of the same voice which has always tempted the tortured Kylo Ren towards the Dark Side. As the only time we hear Jones speak within the Sequel Trilogy, it’s a moment which drives home the impact of how this must affect the child of Leia who has done everything to continue the work of a grandfather he never really knew.
“As you wish.” -Star Wars
Vader’s “I find your lack of faith disturbing” may be the original film quote which gets the most t-shirt play, but it’s this flippant three word delivery after he’s commanded to release Admiral Motti from a deadly Force Choke for his temerity to question Vader’s stock in The Force we find most charming. Jones delivers his reply with a careless timbre which indicates it clearly makes no difference to him whether this man lives or dies. As soon as Vader leaves the room, Motti might as well not even exist to him, or to the Empire. In three words, Vader communicates just how little any of these bureaucrats mean to him in the grand scope of the Empire’s plans.
“You are in command now, Admiral Piett.” -Empire Strikes Back
Again, this delivery comes in close proximity to a famous Force Choke, and a much more famous line: the execution of the hapless Admiral Ozzel who bungled the raid on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back, as Vader tells him the last words he’ll ever hear: “You have failed me for the last time.” But even more terrifying is the implied threat that comes after to the man who replaces him as he falls to the ground. The swift change in command to Piett as he’s elevated to Admiral after witnessing his superior’s death clearly implies to all that should he fail similarly, no lesser a fate waits for him.
“Perhaps you think you’re being treated unfairly?” -Empire Strikes Back
This line delivery here… it’s just delicious. Luxurious. Vader’s more famous “I am altering the deal” to the hard luck Lando comes later, but this set-up as Vader carefully poses his question to Lando’s protests communicates all he has to about what his protests amount to, and what the power dynamic between them truly is. There is no deal to be had here, no renegotiation. There is only Vader’s power, and Lando’s compliance. If he wants to find out, Vader implies here, then he is more than welcome to eff around.
“Yes, Admiral.” -Empire Strikes Back
The newly appointed Admiral Piett survives his first command on Hoth, but lives to see an even more gruesome sight: the vision of Darth Vader, sans helmet, in a rare moment of vulnerability within his meditation chamber. Roused from urgent introspection and observed in a state that no mere officer should ever see, these two words laden with annoyance communicate their intention clearly: this better be damn important, or the Admiral will not be leaving this unscheduled meeting alive.
“Impressive. Most impressive.” -Empire Strikes Back
You may have noticed by now that the most fully represented film on this list is The Empire Strikes Back. That’s for good reason: out of all the films in Star Wars, Empire is truly Vader’s movie. All the best lines, the most captivating moments, go to Vader, after thoroughly winning us over in the first film – a movie which, all things considered, really featured Grand Moff Tarkin as a more central antagonist than the heavyweight bruiser Vader embodied. At that point, Vader had been more Prowse than Jones. By the second film, Lucasfilm knew the talent they had on their hands, and put him to work.
This scene here, in Vader’s duel with Luke, is one that can only be appreciated upon repeat viewings, when you know the secret he holds. In Vader’s voice hides not admiration for a skilled enemy, but pride in a son he never got to know. In their duel, with this expression, Vader shows us his hand: perhaps his dream of overthrowing the Emperor with his son by his side, skilled as he is, is not so impossible after all.
“Where is Padme? Is she safe? Is she alright?” -Revenge of the Sith
James Earl Jones doesn’t get much time to inhabit the Vader role in the Prequel Trilogy, and the one scene he does get is overshadowed by the bombastic “NOOOOOOO!” which heralds the burial of the man he was before the rise of Lord Vader. But the quiet, subdued Vader is the one we’d like to focus on here. The one who exists for mere seconds, recovered from near death after avowing his hatred for the man he once loved most. The quiet, desperate hope, soon extinguished by his new dark master, that perhaps this wasn’t all for nothing. That maybe one person, the mother of his children, could be saved. That moment was Anakin’s last gasp of life until years later, when he would learn that one he thought lost to the dark had been spared after all.
“Now go, my son. Leave me.” -Return of the Jedi
The shocking pride Vader expresses in Empire Strikes Back returns here, in Luke’s final conversation with his redeemed father, with a choking warmth he had never expressed before, even as a Jedi. With his final sacrificial act, the man who was Vader looks upon his child with his own eyes, with only time enough to express his love in so many words for the child of boundless hope who believed he could return to the light. It was in the last film that Vader identified himself as Luke’s father, but here with his dying words where he earns that relationship. The mask has fallen, and Vader is no more. Anakin Skywalker is forever.
“Commander, tear this ship apart until you find those plans. And bring me the passengers; I want them alive!” -Star Wars
This is The One; there could be no other. You may have noticed we left “I am your father” off the list. That’s because it’s really the script, the cinematography, and the swelling score which meet in collaboration with Jones to deliver the most famous plot twist ever executed. But in this line early in the first film, James Earl Jones establishes Vader’s voice in a way that would cement his legacy to the point that even into his 90s, filmmakers would rather preserve his voice in technological simulacrum for eternity than ever hand it over to another.
The mad urgency of these orders, as sentences crash into each other to direct a scrambling crew of Stormtroopers, gives all the impression that Darth Vader is the man in charge. He is the physical embodiment of swift evil, coming for you at a speed and ferocity which cannot be overcome. If you fear the Empire, it’s because you fear Vader. The costume certainly does a lot of the work, we’ll admit. But it’s the voice of James Earl Jones which made Darth Vader into the greatest movie villain of all time.
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