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.note 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.
It is worth noting that to both prevent this from happening and to stop protesters from hurting themselves,note there are a small but growing number of fire-retardant flags on sale. Trying to burn one of these tends to end rather dismally.
Compare Tattered Flag for when a ruined flag is shown.
- 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 Hellsing OVA there is a brief shot of a Union Jack catching fire during Millenium's initial bombing. This symbolises that Britain is burning.
- 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.) Shepherd later responds by arguing that the symbol of a free country cannot just be a flag: "the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest."
- 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 & Clark, and at the end, after they've been foiled, Superman uses his heat vision to burn 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 fact, this is part of their stage show in Real Life as well. To say that Penn and Teller have strongly held and expressed political convictions would be an understatement.
- 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 Americans 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."
- Famously averted in 1991 as part of Sgt. Slaughter's heel pro-Iraqi sympathizer gimmick, in the midst of the Persian Gulf War. Shortly after winning the WWF World Heavyweight Championship, one draft would have had Slaughter and Gen. Adnan — during a house show taping — enter the arena with an American flag before cutting an antiHulk Hogan promo and then setting fire to the flag. Very wisely, Slaughternote and the writers nixed the idea about as quickly as it was made, and decided the same point — that Slaughter was bigger, badder, and stronger than Hogan and that he wouldn't stand a chance against him at WrestleMania VII — could be made (and get the desired heel heat) by burning a Hulk Hogan T-shirt attached to a flagpole.
- That said, as Mean Gene Okerlund was interviewing Hogan after the 1991 Royal Rumble (wherein Slaughter won the World Championship), they "received word" that Slaughter was "defacing the American flag" ... implying (but not outright stating) the possibility that Slaughter and Adnan were burning the American flag. Slaughter, of course, was safely inside the Miami Arena where the event took place, under tight security and waiting to tape a month's worth of promos, before he could be led out of the arena safely ... long after fans had gone home.
- 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.
- Used again in Assassin's Creed: Syndicate. Whenever Jacob or Evie Frye take over a Blighter stronghold, they hand a torch to one of their Rooks and have them burn the Blighter flag.
- 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 discusses flag burning. One of the hosts is quite positive to it, much to his co-host's confusion. Turns out he missed the l.
- Spec Ops: The Line: Colonel Konrad blacked out the stars on his flag after going rogue. The game's Difficulty Levels are depicted as the Army flag patch plastered over with increasing amounts of duct tape.
- Home Front: Seen in some of the promotional images.
- A variation in the Empire final cinematic in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3; one of the Empire's King Oni mechs slices a Soviet flag in half using its Eye Beams before replacing it with an Imperial one.
- In the Grand Finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender Iroh, after defeating the Fire Nation forces occupying Ba Sing Se, the very city he had once attempted to conquer for the Fire Nation, 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 fiancee 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]Lisa: Dad!Homer: Aah![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-burnersWho have got too much freedomI want to make it legalFor policemen to beat 'em.'Cause there's limits to our libertiesAt 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!!
- In a Flash Forward episode Homer & Bart greet Lisa's British fiancee by running the UK flag up their flagpole.
- Family Guy: While Peter and Lois are in Cuba, a passerby is kind enough to light Peter's cigar with the American flag he's burning.
- The King of the Hill episode "Old Glory" has Bill being reluctant to burn an American flag his General deems oversized for flying.