"Burning the/your ships/boats" means doing something that makes it impossible for yourself to turn back, especially if it is done willfully and without necessity. The figure of speech derives from legends about conquerors who supposedly, upon landing their army in enemy country, ordered the invasion fleet to be burnt. Most people today have heard this tale about Hernán Cortés, but it is in fact centuries older than Cortez. "Burning the bridges" has the same meaning.
The assumed benefit of such an act is that everyone on the team — whether it be an actual army intent on conquest, or any party pursuing a risky undertaking will show maximum commitment if they know that retreat is impossible. There isn't any use in holding back or playing it safe when there is no exit option to fall back on. Desertion or mutiny is futile if there is no hope of escape. Dissenters are silenced when there are no choices left to argue over, and everyone's best hope of survival lies in cooperating for the common success. Once the Ships are Burnt, it's do or die for everyone — succeed, or face death or captivity.
Or that is the theory. While tales of this type are a favorite of motivational trainers, who always focus on how "cutting off your retreat" will set free unknown potentials, there are only few historical examples of things like this actually happening, and then usually not for the exact same reasons. Also contrary to what motivational trainers like to suggest, it is not actually a guarantee of success.
Depending on the situation and the kind of enterprise at hand, there are many ways of Burning the Ships:
- Throwing away vital supplies, like food or fuel.
- Destroying irreplacable equipment needed for the return journey.
- Intentionally leading your troops into a tight spot from which there is no way of escape without fighting.
- Giving your position or your plans away to the enemy, so they will block your exits.
- Destroying the radio or other means of communication needed to call for help.
- A group of people that intends to commit treason of some sort may send a message confessing their defection to the betrayed faction, making it impossible for anyone who gets cold feet to turn back to their old master and evade punishment.
If actual ships are destroyed, burning is the preferred method. Obviously there are other ways to wreck ships, but burning is the most picturesque.
An act like this can be unilaterally ordered by a leader, or agreed on as a collective decision. But it always hints at internal conflicts within the party that is thus committed to a common goal: Usually it is done precisely because the initiatiors of a Ship Burning do not trust in the loyalty or the morale of the rest of the group in the face of danger. Objecting to a Ship Burning is hard, as it may lead to being branded a coward or even traitor. Burning the Ships may be nothing less than a stratagem to coerce the group into a course of action they would not have chosen from their free will.
Characters who order or initiate a Ship Burning are always reckless and uncompromising, and often morally ambivalent: Shining heroes do not need to force their followers to fight, or put the lives of their companions at unnecessary risks; on the other hand, even bad guys can earn some respect from the audience if they show they have no backup plan in the case of defeat. Characters who Burn the Ships are often Anti-Heroes, Anti-Villains, or Villain Protagonists.
Compare Cornered Rattlesnake, which is non-voluntary. Contrast Let the Past Burn, which is mostly a symbolic action on an individual scale. An employee quitting a job in a way that makes sure they can't ever go back again is Take This Job and Shove It. Throw the Sheath Away and The Gloves Come Off are distant relatives.
Not to be confused with Sink the Lifeboats (that is, Burning Their Ships), which is about preventing your enemies from escaping so you can exterminate every last one of them. If you were thinking about burning pairings, see Ship Sinking.
- Fist of the North Star: While in the process of mourning the fallen Hyui, Shuren, one of the Five Chariot Stars, incinerates his army's fortress as a memorial to his fallen comrade and as a means to force his men to attack the killer, Raoh. Shame that it does very little to help him survive his fight with Raoh.
- Berserk: In the Battle of Doldrey, Griffith positions himself and the portion of his army that he expects to face the largest part of the enemy force with their backs to a river and no way to retreat. He does this not only to motivate his own men, but also as part of a Batman Gambit: Cornered and outnumbered, his force presents a tempting target that succeeds in drawing the enemy forces out of their castle, which is promptly captured in a sneak attack by a small flanking force.
- Fullmetal Alchemist: When setting out on their journey, the Elric brothers Ed and Al burn down their childhood home so there will be no turning back. Explored and discussed later on. Winry understands why they did this and why Ed put the date on his watch, but calls him out by thinking they don't have a home anymore, causing the brothers to realize they still have people waiting for them when they complete their journey. Another if not darker extent is when Ed sees his father Van Hoenheim at the place. Hoenheim actually points out that Ed did not burn the house because of this, but because of their failure at bringing back their mother, with Hoenheim even comparing it to a child wetting the bed and hiding the sheets. Ed's horrified looks imply that Hoenheim is not entirely wrong in this.
- In the Polish comic series Kajko i Kojosz, Hegemon, the leader of the villainous Banditknights, was always afraid that his men would chicken out at the last moment and not follow him into battle. Thus he would always try to find a way to prevent this by destroying any means of retreat. The heroes would realize this and use it against him. In one instance, the Banditknights built a siege tower that would get them onto the town's walls. Once all of them were inside, Hegemon set fire to the bottom of the tower so everyone had to exit through the top. However, during the previous night, Kajko and Kojosz sabotaged the tower by shortening the ramp at the top so all the Banditknights ended up falling into the moat instead.
- At the end of The Bounty, Fletcher Christian has the HMS Bounty burned, to make sure the mutineers are committed to living on Pitcairn Island and to prevent anyone from trying to get back to Tahiti or England. (Real Life demonstrated how this tactic can backfire. When an American whaling ship stumbled on the island 19 years later and solved the mystery of the lost HMS Bounty, only one mutineer was left alive, along with several women and children. The other mutineers and the Tahitian men that went with them had all killed each other off.)
- The 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty also has Christian burning the ship, as happened in Real Life. The 1962 film puts an odd and fictional twist on it, by having the crew burn the ship after Christian decides to go back to England.
- In the first Jaws, Quint destroys the radio when Brodie tries to call for help, and later appears to deliberately burn out his engine so they can't escape their final confrontation with the shark.
- In the film of The Hunt for Red October, Marko Ramius, captain of a submarine carrying nuclear missiles, sends a letter to the CO of the Soviet Navy stating that he and his command staff are defecting. When his staff officers ask him why he did it, he cites the example of Cortes' destruction of his ships.
- Invoked in Gattaca: The movie features two brothers, Anton (born with genetic enhancements) and Vincent (without). Both brothers throughout their childhood competed in a game of "chicken" where they would swim out as far out to sea as possible with the loser being the one who turns back first. Anton would always beat Vincent due to his enhancements except for the last time they played, where Vincent won. When both are adults, they repeat the game, Vincent wins again and reveals his secret to Anton: he never saved any energy for the swim back. This parallels Vincent's quest to become an astronaut despite his genetics and thus society standing in his way via sheer determination and audacity.
- In The Shining, Jack Torrance, slowly being possessed by the evil spirits in the snowed-in Overlook Hotel, disables the ham radio (the family's only means of calling for help) and the snowcat (their only means to leave the hotel).
- From Aguirre, the Wrath of God: After promoting Don Fernando de Guzmán to 'Emperor of El Dorado', Aguirre makes Carvajal write a letter to King Philipp of Spain which declares not only their defection from Spain, but also the "overthrow" of the House of Habsburg and the "dethronement" of Philipp. The letter is kept by Aguirre, who in this way makes sure that Guzmán and the rest cannot bail out of their rebellion, as the letter is incriminating proof of their complicity.
Aguirre: Fortune smiles on the brave and spits on the coward. Let's sever our ties with Spain and crown Don Fernando de Guzmán Emperor of El Dorado.
- The Finest Hours: After the SS Pendleton splits in two, the ship's engineer, Mr. Sybert, cuts the sole lifeboat down, which is then splintered by the waves, leaving the men no other choice but to help him keep them afloat awhile longer.
- In The Naked Jungle, facing the invasion of a swarm of ants, Leiningen burns the canoes of his native servants so they don't desert him.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, one of the important historical characters is the Princess Nymeria, who led a fleet of Rhoynish refugees away from their Valyrian conquerors. After ending up in Dorne and allying with the then-minor House Martell, she burned the rest of the fleet so that the Rhoynish would never leave their new home. This is the reason for the differences between Dornish culture and the other kingdoms'.
- Sun Tzu advises this as one of his stratagems in The Art of War, but for the same reason warns against forcing an enemy into a situation where it appears his only option is to fight to the death. Instead, he advises leaving an apparent escape route to encourage flight. A fleeing enemy is easier to kill, after all.
- Vegetius in 'De Re Militari'' suggests exactly the same. The side which has all of his escape routes blocked, fights with desperation.
- In the Anabasis, Xenophon describes at one point, while leading the Greek retreat from Persia, positioning his army in front of a chasm, precisely so that both his own soldiers and the pursuing Persians would know that retreat was impossible. The Persians withdrew and allowed the Greeks to retreat. Only a partial example, however, because Xenophon's purpose was to retreat, not to force a confrontation.
- The Silmarillion: After the Noldorin Elves led by Fëanor have crossed over from Aman to Middle-earth on the ships they stole from the Telerin Elves, Fëanor orders them to burn all the ships. He does this to prevent any of his followers from returning to Aman, but also to make sure they cannot help the rest of the Noldor who follow Fëanor's brother Fingolfin get to Middle-earth.
- In Cursor's Fury, book three of the Codex Alera, Sarl, the Canim commander, burns the Canim fleet in order to prevent the warriors under his command who are there under duress from fleeing back home. The invasion was ordered by priests of two castes who dislike each other passionately.
- In Belgarath the Sorceror, Riva orders the ships that carried the settlers to the Isle of the Winds burned. He knows it will take a lot of hard work to build the fortress-city, and he doesn't want anyone deciding it's too much work and leaving.
- The Hunt for Red October: Marko Ramius, captain of a submarine carrying nuclear missiles, sends a letter to the CO of the Soviet Navy stating that he and his command staff are defecting. When his staff officers ask him why he did it, he says the knowledge that there is no turning back will strengthen their motivation and commitment.
- In Honor Harrington, the original colonists to Grayson wrecked their starship's cryonics equipment, ensuring that it would be impossible to return to the "sinful" Earth. They didn't wreck the whole thing, though, which is fortunate because it turned out that the planet was basically one huge Superfund site and there's no way they would have survived without the ship's resources.
- In Redwall: When Cluny the Scourge arrives in Mossflower, he press-gangs all of the local vermin into his cause and orders his rats to smash the new conscripts' houses, so they will have nothing to return to if they desert him.
- Julian did this believing that his victory was assured by the gods. He was wrong. One character described it as the beginning of the end: "Nothing went right again."
- Malazan Book of the Fallen:
- The Bridgeburners' name invokes this. They are an elite company, the Emperor's favourite one, of which every member has "burned the bridge" to his or hers past. Even their company emblem consists of a silver brooch with ruby flames.
- In the fifth book, Midnight Tides, the Tiste Edur, upon setting out to conquer the Kingdom of Lether, allow their home villages to be bombarded and utterly destroyed by magic, so as to not have anything possible dissenters could return to.
- In the seventh book, Reaper's Gale, Adjunct Tavore Paran orders the Malazan ships to be burned after unloading her punitive army on the shores of Lether. Under a morally ambiguous commander of uncertain motivations, being stranded on foreign shores with no way back home certainly serves to fuel speculation among the Bonehunters.
- The Burning Bridge by Poul Anderson. A starship going to establish a Cult Colony to escape persecution back on Earth get a message via Subspace Ansible inviting them to return as the political situation has changed. Dissent breaks out as the colonists argue over whether they should return. Worried about where this is heading, The Captain fakes a second message changing this invitation to a demand that they return, knowing the colonists will assume the government is just up to its old tricks.
- This is a Discussed Trope in the last season of The Office (US). Andy Bernard talks about the legend of Cortes sinking his ships. He then insults David Wallace and defecates on his car so that he won't have the option of returning to Dunder-Mifflin if his show business hopes don't work out.
- In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
- In "Paradise", Sisko and O'Brien come across a group of space Luddites who crash-landed on a planet ten years ago, and since then have thrown away all their electronic technology, thus forsaking any chance to call for help. It turns out the leader of the group and her son had secretly sabotaged the ship so it would crash and are keeping a technology-blocking device going so that nobody on the planet can use any technology even if they wanted to.
- In "Hippocratic Oath" a Jem'Hadar commander discovers that he has lost his genetic addiction to Ketracel White which his race has been bred to have in order to make them loyal to the Founders. He takes his platoon to an empty planet because he thinks the plants there have cured him, and then destroys both his ship and most of their supply of Ketracel White to get them off the stuff too. But it turns out he's the only one who is affected, and the rest of the crew develops withdrawal symptoms.
- In The Twilight Zone episode "On Thursday We Leave For Home", Captain Benteen tries in vain to destroy the rescue ships from Earth because he wants to remain in control of the people on the asteroid.
- In Halt and Catch Fire Joe deliberately informs IBM that Joe and Gordon, as Cardiff Electric employees, have reverse engineered the IBM PC BIOS code. IBM sends in an army of lawyers and Nathan Cardiff is left with two choices: fully commit his company to the PC clone project Joe is advocating or get sued into bankruptcy by IBM. Everyone is furious at Joe but in the end he gets his way. This is then subverted when we realize that the project's failure will ruin everyone except Joe. He forced everyone else to take a high personal risk and commit fully to the project, but due to his father's connections he can walk away at any time and resume his old life.
- In the finale of Battlestar Galactica (2003) the survivors of the Twelve Colonies have no choice but to commit themselves to a primitive life on prehistoric Earth when the decision is made to literally burn the ships that brought them there - they are flown into the Sun on autopilot.
- One contestant on Chopped reinforced her own commitment to remain a chef, rather than return to corporate life, by having each knuckle tattooed with small pictures of desserts. She knew that having such tats would hinder her chances at potential white-collar job interviews.
- Manowar's "Heart of Steel" features a few lines about just this trope.
Burn the bridge behind you
Leave no retreat
There's only one way home
Those who laugh and crowd the path
And cut each other's throats
Will fall like melting snow
- Christian music artist Stephen Curtis Chapman has a song titled "Burn the Ships", which references the Cortez tale. It's a metaphor for not going back to your old life once you've made a change.
- My Brightest Diamond references this in the song "Escape Routes", where it's a metaphor for choosing love over apathy.
Let's close off all our escape routes
Let's not put it off tonight
Let's close off all our escape routes
We can have it all tonight
- After crossing the Huang He into hostile Quin territory in 208 BC, Xiang Yu of Chu supposedly ordered his army to sink the boats, as well as to pack only supplies for three days and to destroy the rest, along with the cooking utensils. This meant that they could neither go back, nor avoid starvation except by conquering the supplies of the enemy. The traditional wording of the order, "Break the kettles and sink the boats!" (破釜沉舟), are a Chinese idiom.
- A legend about Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Berber general who conquered the Visigothic kingdom of Spain, says that he had his fleet burned after landing his army at Gibraltar in 711. This version is first mentioned only in the 12th century by the geographer al-Idrisi.
- Nibelungenlied (adventure 25): After ferrying the entire Burgundian army across the Danube, Hagen hacks the boat to pieces and casts them into the river. Asked why he did that, he replies they will not need the boat again and that he wishes that any deserters who might turn back should drown in the river. A little later he reveals that three river-women have already predicted that they will all die in Hunland.
- In the "Greenlandic Lay of Atli" of the Poetic Edda, the Niflungs do not fasten the boat in which they have rowed to Hunland, so it will presumably be driven away by wind and waves. This is a hint that they already expect that they will not return.
- According to The Battle of Magh Tuireadh, the Tuatha Dé Danann "immediately broke and burnt all their ships and boats" upon landing in Ireland to challenge the Fir Bolg for one half of the island.
- Styrbjorn in "The Tale of Styrbjörn" has his fleet burnt after sailing up the Fyris River to Uppsala to challenge his uncle Erik for the kingship.
He burned all the ships on which he had come there, because he believed his men would not be so quick to flee if there was no way of getting away from there.
- Combining this with a parody of Celebrity Endorsement, Jay Briscoe tried to destroy the family's STIHL products going into the 2016 Best In The World, to show he was so confident he'd be getting "that world champion money" by beating Jay Lethal that none of them would need to supplement their incomes with the money said products brought them. None of the other Briscoes present protested, except for Jay's Tag Team partner Mark.
- In the history of the Tuala Morn setting of Fantasy Hero, the ancestors of the Tualans were refugees hunting for a new homeland. Once they decided to settle in Tuala Morn, their leader scuttled their ships as a sacrifice to the sea gods, thanking them for their aid.
- In 1776, John Adams makes this declaration during the Eleven O'Clock Number, "Is Anybody There." Though despondent over the might of the British army and his Congressional allies giving up in the face of the South's walkout, he declares that he's already passed the point of no return and therefore, cannot stop fighting to realize his dreams of an independent America.
For I have crossed the Rubicon
Let the bridge be burned behind me
Come what may, come what may!
- In Warcraft III, Prince Arthas Menethil impulsively leads his troops to Northrend in pursuit of the Dreadlord Mal'Ganis, while the undead plague is still afflicting his kingdom of Lordaeron. While Arthas is out of his camp, a messenger from King Terenas arrives with orders to recall the prince's forces, who are elated at the thought of leaving the frozen wasteland and returning home. The mission that follows has Arthas and his companion Muradin Bronzebeard fighting across the map, hiring mercenaries for help, all so they can reach and destroy the return ships before his men can finish preparations for leaving. Afterward, Arthas makes scapegoats out of the mercenaries he hired for the act, joins his men in killing them, and declares that they have no choice but to continue the hunt for Mal'Ganis. Muradin chews him out for his actions, and the episode takes Arthas one step further from Anti-Villain to Villain Protagonist.
- In Episode 4 of Life Is Strange Max burns the photograph she had used to change history in the previous episode, making sure she isn't tempted to do it again. The game potentially ends with her tearing up the butterfly photo that started it all rather than use it to go back and sacrifice Chloe.
- Spongebob Squarepants: In "Clams", Mr. Krabs enlists SpongeBob and Squidward to help him to get Krabs' millionth dollar back from the clam that ate it. As motivation to catch the clam (and in an allusion to Moby-Dick), Mr. Krabs nails a sandwich to the mast of the ship—and then throws the boat's fridge overboard, so that no one may eat until the clam is captured.
"Now understand each other. Nobody eats until we get my millionth dollar back."
- The Simpsons: In "And Maggie Makes Three", it's shown that when Homer quit his job at the nuclear plant to pursue his dream job at the bowling alley, he burned his bridges both metaphorically (by mocking Mr. Burns and literally playing his head like a bongo drumnote ) and literally. Naturally, by the end of the episode he's forced to get his old job back and has to come groveling to Burns.
- Neo Yokio: Helena does this when she blows up the Bachelor Ranking Board in an act of terrorism. Law enforcement soon learned Helena is the culprit; forcing her to flee Neo Yokio.
- After sailing from Cuba to Mexico in 1519, Hernán Cortés had eight of his eleven ships beached and disassembled. Cortés, who acted in defiance of the orders of his superior, governor Diego Velázquez of Cuba, had just before put down a mutiny of soldiers loyal to Velázquez and feared that the same might happen again as long as the ships allowed a fast return to Cuba; furthermore he could reinforce his march inland with the crew and the equipment of the dismantled ships. The details of the decision process are murky: While Cortés himself wrote to Emperor Charles V that he alone gave the orders under the pretense that the ships were no longer seaworthy, sparing only the ships the crews of which he considered reliable, the eyewitnesses Bernal Díaz and Andres de Tapia later claimed that the destruction of the ships was decided after a general discussion. Francisco de Montejo and Alonso Portocarrero, messengers of Cortés that were sent to Spain immediately after the event, claimed that the ships really had been unseaworthy. The misconception that Cortés burned (all of) his ships is old, being first mentioned in a letter from 1546.
- Wars of the Roses: King Edward IV did this in 1471 upon his return to England, seeking to take his throne back from Henry VI. It worked, as he crushed the Lancastrians and ended the Wars of the Roses.
- The "regicides", the politicians who voted for the death of Louis XVI during The French Revolution felt this about their action. At the time of the trial, France was at war with other European nations who wanted to end the Revolution and restore the monarchy. The advocates for Louis XVI's death argued that keeping the King alive left them open to betrayal from within since it didn't serve the King's interests to serve the Republic and that he had already conspired against the revolution repeatedly, the National Convention also wanted to prove to the people of France and especially Paris that it was committed to revolutionary success. By voting for the King's death, the conventionnels (as they called themselves) were drawing a line in sand, sending a message to the French public that the government is totally commited to the revolution, since their only hope for the war would be "Victory or Death":
"We have finally docked on the isle of freedom, and we have burned the vessel that brought us there."— Pierre-Joseph Cambon, on the execution of Louis XVI
- The mutineers burned the HMS Bounty after settling on Pitcairn Island, both to avoid discovery by any other British ships and to ensure that none of them would be tempted to escape back to civilization (as mutineers, their lives would have been forfeit had the Royal Navy found them).