Over the years, The Lion King (1994)‘s Scar (Jeremy Irons) has become one of Disney’s most unforgettable villains. The treacherous lion is based on an amalgamation of King Claudius from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Jeremy Irons himself, and the voice actor’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of the European aristocrat Claus von Bülow in the film Reversal of Fortune (1990). In additon, the political leanings of Scar’s villainy echo those of history’s most notorious villain, Austrian-born German leader of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler.
The lyrics of Scar’s song “Be Prepared” lay out his plans for ushering in a new world order: “So prepare for a chance of a lifetime/Be prepared for sensational news/A shining new era is tip-toeing nearer.” Also during this number, Scar looks down at his newly recruited army of goose-stepping hyenas in a formation reminiscent of the infamous Nuremberg rallies, held by the Nazi Party from 1923 to 1938. (Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) recorded the event in 1934, which was attended by over 700,000 supporters.)
But while certain imagery and statements may suggest that The Lion King antagonist adheres to the tyrannical ideology of fascism, Scar’s actual policies also suggest aspects of communism. These two doctrines, theoretically on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, are generally considered antithetical to each other, yet in practice, fascist and communist dictators in the 20th century were guilty of many of the same transgressions and crimes against humanity.
One of fascism’s essential principles is the distinction between the supposed superior and inferior races, while the theory of communism stresses the need for a society wherein everyone lives as complete equals. Scar creates a more communist social structure when he puts the hyenas, a scavenger species that lives off the work of others, on the same level as the lions, who have traditionally ruled at the top of the hierarchy as nature’s leaders in strength, cunning and prowess.
“I never thought hyenas essential/They’re crude and unspeakably plain,” Scar sings. “But maybe they’ve a glimmer of potential/if allied to my vision and brain.” While (like a fascist) he looks down on hyenas and thinks of them as an inferior species, Scar is more than willing to do business with them if it furthers his agenda. This flexibility suggests that his vision is less about equailty than opportunism and seizing power by any means necessary; the equalizing of the species is a side effect.
Mufasa (James Earl Jones) justifies the lions’ rule over other species in the animal kingdom to his son and the Pride Land’s future king, Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick), stating, “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.” After Simba points out the fact that the lions eat the antelope, Mufasa agrees but goes on to explain that, “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”
Even the majority of the animals in the Pride Lands are accepting of this notion. At the opening of the film, when the king and queen are showing off their newborn son to for all to see, there is unanimous praise among the animal population. This is rather odd, considering that the little cub will one day grow up to be a great hunter and likely eat many of the spectators.
The only one who doesn’t give into the Circle of Life philosophy is Scar. In his first appearance to the audience, Scar laments to his lunch that life isn’t fair. He later explains to the hyenas that once he is “given his dues,” all injustices will be squared and that those who are loyal to him will “never go hungry again.” The hyenas then rejoice that they will “soon be connected with a King who’ll be all time adored.” Of course, this turns out to be an empty campaign promise, as under Scar’s rule, the Pride Lands are so ravaged by the hyenas’ unrestricted destruction that no food remains for anyone, however far up or down on the food chain.
Like the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution who murdered the Czar and led to the eventual rise of the Soviet Union, Scar and the hyenas plot to kill key members of the royal family and bring about a new social structure. “So prepare for the coup of the century/Be prepared for the murkiest scam,” Scar sings.
Whether Scar’s actions are motived by pure selfishness, a lack of will to adequately manage his kingdom, or (less likely) by a true belief in the equality of all species, he uses the inequalities in the African outback to his advantage and, once in power, lets the hyenas run rampant as he has promised. The problem is that this does not lead to a life of prosperity for anyone, even Scar. It turns out that Mufasa was right, and the flourishing of the Pride Lands at all levels depends on a hierarchy held together by balance and a shrewd, respectful ruling class. The film’s endorsement of a society based on a naturally occuring hierarchy recalls the Platonic idea of the Great Chain of Being, which dominated in the Middle Ages and features prominently in many Shakespearean plays. The religious idea posited that every person and creature has its God-given place in the universe, and when this chain of being is disturbed (if too many creatures move from their rightful positions), chaos and evil result.
Late in the film, Simba returns to his kingdom to find it dilapidated as a result of Scar’s new social policies, since the balance that Mufasa cultivated is out of whack. Simba takes it on himself to stand up to his evil uncle and take back what is rightfully his. At the film’s conclusion, Simba and his queen unveil their child and future heir to the Pride Lands, which in Scar’s absence has returned to its glory days. Just as in the film’s opening, all of nature’s creatures cheer on the young cub and welcome back the old order: one in which inequality is the norm and everyone knows their place in the great Circle of Life.