The 10 Best James Earl Jones Movies
James Earl Jones may have the second-most recognizable voice in the history of American cinema after Orson Welles himself. His vocal performance as Darth Vader in five of the Star Wars franchise films — and countless other, smaller projects — has been as critical to film at large as it has to his own career. His turn as Mufasa in The Lion King is near as significant. So much so, in fact, that he is slated to reprise the role in the Jon Favreau-directed CGI remake this year. In the wake of these two titanic voice roles, he has had his filmography peppered with uncredited narrator parts. From Judge Dredd to Click, Jones has never stopped lending his powerful voice to films. However, he has given a handful of memorable on-screen performances throughout his career as well. Whether it is before, after or during his career-defining role as the voice of one of the greatest villains in film history, here are Jones’ ten best.
Star Wars (1977)
George Lucas’ original Star Wars film In spite of being about space-age freedom fighters and an oppressive galactic Empire, It is emotionally accessible with its classical score from John Williams. The film has a visual logic to it, even when it comes to costuming. Standing at 6 feet and 6 inches, David Prowse in Darth Vader’s suit is a daunting figure, to say the least. He looks imposing and downright evil. His voice, however, with his thick British accent, seems less so. Jones’ low, booming bass, on the other hand, turned out to be a perfect fit for the now-infamous character.
Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Empire Strikes Back is an ideal sequel. Lucas, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and director Irvin Kershner successfully expand the world of Star Wars while deepening our emotional understanding of the characters. In spite of being the villain, Jones’ Darth Vader also receives such treatment. Mark Hamill’s protagonist Luke Skywalker moves ever closer to his destiny, which is a clash with Vader himself. Indeed, it is a classic in its own right, with another great vocal performance by Jones.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Before he made Clockwork Orange, The Shining or even 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick directed the outrageously funny satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. At the height of the Cold War, nuclear annihilation seems imminent after a rogue U.S. Air Force General (Sterling Hayden) launches an attack on the Soviet Union without approval. One of the pilots he sends on this mission — which will surely doom the planet — is Lieutenant Lothar Zogg (Jones). With performances from George C. Scott, Slim Pickens and Peter Sellers doing triple duty as President Merkin Muffley, RAF Captain Lionel Mandrake and the eponymous Dr. Strangelove, it is a near-perfect film.
Return of the Jedi (1983)
Though Return of the Jedi generally fails to meet the highs of its predecessors, it is a thoroughly enjoyable bit of camp. With more bizarre creatures than the other two films combined, the film offers insight into the strangest parts of the universe George Lucas conceived of. Jones holds the whole thing down with another key performance as Darth Vader’s booming voice, even if his lines aren’t quite as poignant this time around.
The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King was a key film in the late-1980s and early-1990s resurgence in popularity of animated Disney films known as the Disney Renaissance. In the film, a lion cub named Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas/Matthew Broderick) witnesses the death of his father Mufasa (Jones). Out of fear, he runs from his duties as the prince of the jungle to live a life of leisure with a meerkat named Timon (Nathan Lane) and a warthog named Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). With outstanding animation and an enjoyable soundtrack by Elton John, it is a bonafide classic.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first anthology film of the Walt Disney Company era of Lucasfilm. It seeks to bring to life an act of rebellion which sets in motion the events of the original 1977 film. Though Darth Vader only appears in two of the scenes, it is his first substantive appearance in over a decade. It is truly one of the best turns for Darth Vader as a character, though the film as a whole struggled from massive reshoots halfway through production.
Field of Dreams (1989)
The oft-referenced line, “if you build it, they will come,” is a mostly apt description of this Kevin Costner classic. As America’s pastime, many films have been made about baseball over the years, but few are as well-known as this one. Costner’s Ray Kinsella decides on a whim to turn his cornfield into a baseball field. When he does, bizarre and unexplainable things occur. Jones, for his part, plays Terence Mann, an author to whom Ray is drawn by the same force leading him to make the baseball field.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
In the years since The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan has gotten four more films as well as a television show. None of them quite match up to this. Alec Baldwin plays the CIA Analyst who must think and act quickly when a Soviet submarine captain goes rogue and heads for the United States. Jones rounds out the cast of Baldwin, Sean Connery, and Sam Neill as CIA Deputy Director James Greer in this thrilling bit of cinema.
Coming to America (1988)
Coming to America, like The Nutty Professor years later, is a film in which Eddie Murphy can show off his many characters. One of them is protagonist Akeem Joffer, the prince of the (fictional) African nation of Zamunda seeks refuge from his charmed life in New York City. He moves to Long Island City — in spite of his father King Jaffe Joffer (Jones)’s disapproval — to find a wife who will love him for who he is rather than what he has. It is a satisfying watch for any fan of Jones’ or of Eddie Murphy’s comedic stylings.
Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith (2005)
If the original Star Wars trilogy is a groundbreaking series with far more highs than lows, the prequel trilogy of films is the opposite. It is admirable and fascinating that Lucas had essentially no oversight in the production of these three movies because his pockets were well thick enough to fund it himself. That said, the resulting films are far from satisfying. The increasingly pervasive computer-generated sets are often tacky and the dialogue is grating. Still, audiences clamored to the theater to see the third and final act. Many did so to bear witness to Darth Vader take to the silver screen again and hear Jones’ powerful voice for the first time in over two decades, which to some, made it all worthwhile.
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