A flag is the symbol of the nation it represents, its principles, its ideal, and its people and leaders. So, how does someone who's an enemy of said nation demonstrate that? You get one of their flags, and light it on fire.
There are a number of ways this can be portrayed. It can be used by political activists to show their displeasure with a particular country, which is how it is most often used in Real Life
in recent years. It can also be used to symbolize the defeat of a conquered nation, especially if done by their conquerors. Occasionally, dissidents might burn the flag of their own country.
There is a more positive version as well. In some countries, such as the United States and Denmark, it is customary for old, worn-out flags to be ceremonially destroyed by fire. This is referred to as retiring the flag. The US Flag Code
instruction on the matter:
The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.
Compare Tattered Flag
for when a ruined flag is shown.
Given the controversial implications of this trope, No Real Life Examples, Please!
Anime & Manga
- One Piece has Luffy and Usopp doing this to the flag of the World Government — which in the world of the series amounts to nothing less than a declaration of war against said government — in a bid to persuade Nico Robin that they and the entire Straw Hat Crew stand behind her as True Companions.
- In The Punisher #44, the Punisher's Iowa vacation gets cut short when he is forced to rescue a flag-burning protester from his would-be attackers. This act of kindness leads the Punisher deeper into a local fight between protester and rapper Arc Light and a banker with a grudge.
- The American President: President Andrew Shepherd's Republican opponent Sen. Bob Rumson attempts to smear him with a picture of his girlfriend, lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade, burning an American flag during a late-'80s anti-apartheid demonstration. (Presumably they were demonstrating against US inaction or something to that effect.)
- Mulan: As the Huns attack the Great Wall, a Chinese soldier lights a signal fire as he is confronted by Shan Yu, and defiantly says, "Now all of China knows you are here." Shan Yu breaks a nearby flag off its pole and puts it in the fire. "Perfect!"
- Revolution 1967: At one point, the protesters burn the flag of England.
- The Rocketeer: A Nazi propoganda film showing their rocket soldiers attacking America has a burning American flag falling to the ground as the Nazi banner rises in its place.
- The Three Musketeers (1993): The Musketeer corps is disbanded, and the Cardinal's guards ask what to do with the Musketeer flag. Rouchefort, the former musketeer turned enforcer for the Cardinal, tells his men to burn it.
- Iron Man 3: One of the images the Mandarin uses in his announcements is of an effigy of the President Ellis being set on fire with an American flag attached.
- In A Rising Thunder, the manticoran ambassador to Earth observes a 'spontaneous' protest against his nation, noting how the crowd is setting fire to manticoran flags as well as badly-made effigies in manticoran naval uniforms. One of the protesters waiting a bit too long to let go of a burning flag adds a bit of humor to an otherwise bleak scene.
- Nazis take over Metropolis in an episode of Lois and Clark, and at the end, after they've been foiled, Superman burns a Nazi banner that had been hung from the Daily Planet.
- One controversial episode of Seinfeld had a comedic example of this trope. While walking through the Puerto Rican Day Parade, Kramer accidentally sets the Puerto Rican flag on fire with a sparkler and immediately tries to stomp it out. Hilarity Ensues when several Puerto Ricans see him stomping on the still- burning flag...
- In The West Wing, Penn & Teller "burn" a flag at Zoe's birthday party after stuffing it into a rolled-up copy of the Constitution as an example of the rights given by the First Amendment: the flag is gone, but the Constitution is unharmed. Naturally, this causes something of a PR stir.
- In the Game of Thrones third season finale, "Mhysa," there is a shot of a Stark flag burning, symbolizing the defeat of the Northern rebellion after the Red Wedding.
- In Revolution, when Monroe Militiamen find an American flag in someone's house, their leader orders it burned.
- Marilyn Manson's Burning Flag.
- The song Lapdance by N.E.R.D. featuring Lee Harvey and Vita includes the lyrics "Burnin' the flag, all in the name of white trash", sung by Harvey.
- Similar to the above example, Penn & Teller burn an American flag wrapped in a copy of the Bill Of Rights as one of the tricks in their Las Vegas show as seen here. They do the trick to make a point about how American's have the freedom to burn their own flag if they wish. Additionally, the Bill Of Rights is unaffected by the conflagration symbolizing how it is unharmed. No they don't actually burn the flag. Teller has removed the flag before they ignite the flash paper.
- Referenced in this poem by US Marine Corps chaplain Dennis Edward O'Brien:
"It is the soldier, Who salutes the flag, Who serves beneath the flag. And whose coffin is draped by the flag, Who allows the protester to burn the flag."
- In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, one of the thieves' guild quests has you assassinating the leader of a rival guild, the Summerset Shadows. You're given the option to set fire to a banner while in the Shadows' headquarters; if you do so, the quest giver will compliment you for sending a message that the guild won't be trifled with.
- Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood: When you capture a tower, the flag attached to it is set on fire to let the citizens know that the Borgia no longer have control of the area.
- One of the heroic missions on Nar Shaddaa in Star Wars: The Old Republic involves invading a Mandalorian stronghold, killing their leaders and burning their clan flags.
- In the first Saints Row game, the parody right wing radio talk show discuss flag burning. One of the hosts is quite positive to it, much to his co-host's confusion. Turns out he missed the l.
- Home Front: Seen in some of the promotional images.
- In the Grand Finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender Iroh, after defeating the Fire Nation forces occupying Ba Sing Se, burns down the Fire Nation flag hanging on the Earth King's palace.
- Done for practical purposes in Futurama, when Zoidberg burns an "Earthican"note flag to give a heat-seeking missile a heat source to lock onto. The plot at the beginning of the episode concerned him getting in trouble for eating a flag (ironically he's more patriotic than any of the humans present; he did it to demonstrate the freedom it represents). By burning a flag to literally preserve freedom he was able to get his point across and is vindicated.
- The Simpsons:
- In a Flash Forward episode Homer & Bart greet Lisa's British fiance by running the UK flag up their flagpole.
Bart: Here they come: raise the flag!
Homer does so; it sparks as it touches something electrical
Marge: Oh, Lisa!
Homer: Yo, Hugh! Here's a little bit of US hospitality: whaddaya think of that?
unbeknownst to Homer the flag is now on fire. Hugh gasps
he and Bart pull it down and stomp on it
Marge: Now throw compost on it! they do so
Homer: Whew! hands the flag to Hugh Er, enjoy.
Hugh: Oh...a tear forms it's still warm.
- "An Amendment to Be", a "campy '70s throwback for Gen Xers", deals with flag burning, and how it would be unconstitutional to outlaw it. Then the amendment gets ratified, and other, wilder bills get passed.
There's a lot of flag-burners
Who have got too much freedom
I want to make it legal
For policemen to beat'em.
'Cause there's limits to our liberties
At least I hope and pray that there are
'Cause those liberal freaks go too far.
- In the episode "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington" Nelson writes a superpatriotic essay for a contest, for which this is his theme.
So burn that flag if you must! But before you do, you'd better burn a few other things! You'd better burn your shirt and your pants! Be sure to burn your TV and car! Oh yeah, and don't forget to burn your house! Because none of those things would exist without six red stripes, seven red stripes, and a helluva lot of stars!!