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Hard-to-Light Fire

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Even the simplest tasks can prove all but impossible if it builds drama to delay their completion. Fleeing victims drop the keys to their intended shelter; cars that worked fine five minutes ago will perversely refuse to start; merely running across level ground will prove more than the pursued can handle.

This trope is about how oil lamps, fuses, trails of powder, bonfires, or explosive gases never, ever light when you need them to. Matches get dropped or blow out, and lighters spark in vain, their butane exhausted. An unprepared would-be pyro may even remember everything they need to start a blaze, except the means of ignition. Whether it's necessary to incinerate the monster, blow up the villains' Doomsday Device, kindle a campfire to avoid freezing to death, or even go out in a literal blaze of glory, no fire in fiction ignites easily if Rule of Drama is better served by it refusing to do so.

Played for Laughs in comedies and cartoons. Played for Drama in action movies, thrillers, and wilderness adventures.

Sister trope to Dangerous Key Fumble and My Car Hates Me. Cigar-Fuse Lighting, Couldn't Find a Lighter, and Reusable Lighter Toss all subvert this trope via Rule of Cool. Played straight in many a Kids' Wilderness Epic or Horrible Camping Trip.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In The Castle of Cagliostro, Lupin III is trying to light a rocket but has a lot of difficulty with his lighter. He eventually drops the rocket and has to long-jump over the towers manually.
  • In Dr. STONE, the protagonist and science genius Senku gets unpetrified in a flashback and is forced to figure out how to survive now that Earth has reverted back to the stone era in 5738 AD (thanks to the lack of modern civilization). He attempts to start a fire by rubbing a stick with his bare hands, knowing the logic behind it and thinking it shouldn't be that bad. Many hours later, he collapses on the ground with no success — not only is it a hard thing to do, but Senku lacks the physical strength to make it possible. He lampshades that this task is more suited for brawny guys like Taiju or people skilled with their hands like Yuzuriha. He is eventually able to properly start a fire thanks to his great intellect and the tools he creates.

    Films — Animation 
  • In The Emperor's New Groove, Pacha tries to start a fire, but Kuzco keeps accidentally putting it out (then complains that the fire isn't lit yet).
  • In the first segment of The House (2022), Raymond has trouble lighting up the fireplace and fails to do so until his old house's furniture is used instead of normal wood. Considering the house is an Eldritch Location, this circumstance is almost certainly supernatural in nature.
  • Sid the sloth has mixed success in starting a fire in Ice Age. His first effort by rubbing sticks (in the rain) is pathetic. His second effort, rubbing flint against stone, produces sparks that ignite kindling. And his tail.
  • In Disney's Mulan, during the battle with the Huns, Mulan is trying to light the last cannon but she drops her flint in the snow. She eventually resorts to using Mushu's dragon breath to light it at the last second.
  • Toy Story. When Woody and Buzz need to catch up with the truck carrying the other toys away, Woody pulls out a match to light the firework attached to Buzz's back. He lights the match — which is then blown out by a passing car. Luckily he discovers that Buzz's plastic helmet can act like a glass lens and concentrate sunlight to light the firework's fuse.
  • In Rankin/Bass Productions Willy McBean and his Magic Machine, the time-traveling Mad Scientist tries to teach cavemen how to create fire, but hasn't brought anything to light it with, so the Kid Hero Willy McBean has to do it using the rubbing sticks method.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In the Australian movie 2067, time traveler Ethan Whyte has to be talked through how to light a fire using the rubbing stick method by his computer Archie, which includes giving encouraging statements like "Friction makes fire, easy-peasy" and "Even I have trouble with fire."
  • In Atomic Shark, a grief-maddened supporting character who's just seen her boyfriend reduced to chum loses it completely, screams at the heroine that it's all her fault, and grapples said heroine while attempting to light the fuses on a bunch of dynamite. The heroine blows out the lighter's flame before her attacker can complete her misdirected Taking You with Me, and keeps doing so until the distraught woman's hold loosens and she can counterattack.
  • It takes an alarmingly long time for Moses in Attack the Block to light the firework he uses to set off a gas explosion in his flat and blow up the pack of aliens.
  • Arguably the whole fire-making subplot in Cast Away. Here it's not so much that the fire would be hard to make, but the protagonist just has no implements to do so, meaning he has to figure out the secret of fire without modern inventions like matches or a lighter. When he finally manages it with the stone-age technique of rubbing two pieces of wood together until they heat up enough to create a flame, he creates a huge bonfire just for the sake of it, doing a victory dance and shouting, "Look what I have created! I! Have made FIRE!"
  • The Colony (2013): As they're pursued across a bridge by the cannibal tribe, Briggs tries to blow it up with dynamite, but the fuse doesn't light easily and blows out when he plants it, forcing him to go back and blow it up himself in a Heroic Sacrifice. And it doesn't light easily the second time, either.
  • In Cowboys & Aliens, after climbing up a long way to an opening in the alien ship, they drop the matches with which they were supposed to light the fuse to the explosives. Fortunately one of the guys still had a lit cigar in his mouth.
  • In Day of the Outlaw, Starrett runs off, leaving Tex and Pace stranded on top of the mountain in freezing conditions. They are struggling to light a fire as it keeps blowing out in the freezing wind. Pace eventually resorts to using a gunshot to get the fire going, but the shot panics the horses and they run away. When Tex and Pace return from unsuccessfully trying to catch them, the fire has gone out again. Pace pats his pockets only to realise with horror that he has no more matches.
  • One of the grunts from Dog Soldiers goes through a whole bunch of matches trying to light a petrol trail on fire, but they keep breaking. In desperation, he calls for Sarge to help, and Sarge pitches a Molotov Cocktail to set it alight. Later, when Sarge attempts a Taking You with Me by cutting the kitchen gas line and luring the werewolves in, one of them knocks the lighter out of his hand, only to get blown to bits when Sarge switches on the stove's pilot light.
  • Dragonheart: There's a quick joke where Bowen tries, and fails, to start a fire to roast some meat, until Draco gets tired of waiting and ignites the fire himself. This works as well as you'd expect with a dragon. "I hope you like it well done..."
  • The Expendables 2: Gunner tries to get around a cave-in by setting a phosphorus torch alight (he was a chemical engineer before he became a mercenary). However, the explosive fails, and Gunnar notes it must have been damp, just in time for Mauser to drill through the cave-in.
  • Double subverted in Feast, in which several characters are attacked by monsters before they can finish assembling and lighting a Molotov cocktail to defend themselves from said monsters. In the final fight, one character finally does manage to light the thing... only for its wick to be extinguished when a monster rips open the neck of another character, sending blood spraying everywhere and dousing the flame.
  • In The Fifth Element, the fate of Earth depends on lighting the last match the heroes have left to activate the Fire stone. It's as dramatic as it sounds.
  • Firestorm (1998): After plunging into the river, Jesse tries to light a signal fire by striking rocks together. While he generates sparks, he cannot get the fire to light. He then looks over at Jennifer, who already has her fire going. She then smugly holds up a lighter.
  • In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Mrs. Muir tries to light a candle, but the ghost keeps blowing out the matches.
  • In Grabbers, the heroes deduce that the tentacled monsters are poisoned by alcohol, so they get roaring drunk for protection against their attacks. In fact, they're so drunk that two of them can't light the muzzle-wick on their petrol-loaded super soaker. Then when they finally do manage to bring lighter and wick into contact, the weapon's wielder rushes outside into the rain, which extinguishes the flame before he can use it.
  • Husk: When Scott attempts to ignite the gasoline-soaked cornfield, Chris's lighter—which has been working perfectly up till now—suddenly refuses to light.
  • At the beginning of Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008), the adventurers accidentally ignite magnesium in a cave wall when lighting a flare next to it. At the end of the film, they try to trigger a magnesium explosion with flares, but it's harder because the wall is wet.
  • In Jungle, it takes multiple attempts, and several agonizing seconds, for Yossi's lighter to light when he is attempting to ignite his Aerosol Flamethrower.
  • In The Last Winter, Hoffman has to make a fire to save Pollock, who has fallen into water in the middle of an Alaskan winter. Despite the danger, he carefully builds his fire and avoids panicking when the matches initially refuse to ignite.
  • The entire Leprechaun movie series might never have happened if the man whom the little creep escaped from in the first film's prologue hadn't fallen prey to this trope by way of Hollywood Heart Attack when he tried to burn the title creature alive inside a crate.
  • Lou (2022): The title character drops all her matches in the water while trying to light a fire thanks to her arthritic hand, so she uses alcoholic gel and cotton wool from her first aid kit (instead of using it to treat her companion's abrasion) as tinder, lighting it using a battery with aluminum foil held across the contacts to short-circuit it.
  • At the end of Mimic, the hero tries to set a gas main alight to blow up the Judas Breed bugs. His lighter (which had worked just fine earlier) first refuses to light and then falls through a grating, so he bashes metal pipes together until it strikes a spark.
  • In Ozark Sharks, the young heroine canoes out to a raft from which she intends to blow up the man-eating bull shark with a firework cannon. The shark bumps the platform from underneath, causing her to drop her lighter overboard and necessitating a Desperate Object Catch when her father tosses her another from the lakeshore.
  • In Pete's Dragon (1977), Elliot needs to light the lamp of the lighthouse with his fiery breath during a terrible storm. Although his Breath Weapon has been reliable up to then, he has to squeeze his neck and chest into the lighthouse's spiral stairwell to stick his head into its lamp gallery, which prevents the dragon from drawing in enough air to ignite the flame without several tries.
  • Pitch Black has a Hard-to-Relight-Fire moment, when the rain extinguishes nearly all of the survivors' torches and they frantically attempt to reignite the others with the only one still lit.
  • In Quest for Fire, the prehistoric tribe obtains fire from lightning strikes or volcanoes, but don't know how to make it themselves. When the fire goes out, three of them have to go on a journey to find a new source.
  • In Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Jill attempts to blow up some infected guard dogs with the kitchen gas supply at Angie's school. The matchbook she tosses is extinguished by the breeze of being thrown before it can ignite the gas, so Alice steps in to throw a lit cigarette and set off the blast.
  • The Return of Captain Invincible: A propaganda movie shows Captain Invincible at a Boy Scout camp. When the Scouts do the rubbing sticks method, Captain Invincible uses his superpowers to do the same using a huge log.
  • In Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Augie's lighter runs dry when he tries to light the bomb. Which is a good thing, because it buys Denise time to show the three scouts the way to safety.
  • The Silence (2019) involves swarms of sightless monsters called vesps who use noise to sense their victims. When Hugh Andrews has to set fire to a nest of them, he clicks the striker wheel on his Zippo and it does nothing except arouse the attention of a nearby vesp. The second time it lights.
  • Sky Bandits: When Barney and Luke attempt to blow the bridge over the canyon to prevent the Posse from catching up with them, Barney plants the dynamite in the middle of the bridge, but then cannot find any matches. He calls to Luke desperately for matches, and Luke provides him with a single match. Barney lights the fuse, which then burns out without detonating the dynamite. Barney is reduced to setting off the dynamite by shooting it. Luke later reveals he had a whole box of matches and was just messing with Barney. This also marks the first instance of the film's Running Gag of Barney never having a match when he needs one.
  • In Skyline, one character turns on the gas in his kitchen, puts a cigarette to his lips, and prepares to blow up his apartment when the approaching alien Tanker reaches in through the window. However, when he actually tries to light it, his lighter fails. It does work after he's been stabbed by the Tanker, though.
  • In The Thing (1982), when MacReady's blood test exposes one of the others as a Thing, he attempts to burn the revealed alien with the flamethrower. Naturally that's when the flamethrower's fuel line kinks and it produces only small puffs of flaming gas.
  • Played for Laughs in The Time of Their Lives (1946) when Horatio Prim (the ghost of a tinker from the American Revolution) struggles in vain to light the tapers of a chandelier and a table lamp with a match, not understanding that they're electric candles.
  • In Tomorrow: When the War Began, two girls place a petrol tanker under a bridge and lay a rope fuse with which to blow it up, then belatedly realize that each of them thought the other had brought the lighter.
  • In Tremors, Val and Earl forget to bring the lighter when they run for the cliff with the last pipe bomb, forcing Rhonda to join them in running for the edge.
  • In Vanishing on 7th Street, moving shadows that make people disappear invade Detroit. One survivor assembles a gasoline-powered torch to keep them at bay, then asks his companion for her lighter. She realizes she'd left it behind at their previous hiding place, so both have to race the shadows into a nearby clinic where she used to borrow matches from one of the nurses.
  • Water (1985): When the Cascara Liberation Front seize the well, Michael Caine's character threatens to blow everyone up using the dynamite strapped to his colleague, only he can't get his cigarette lighter to work. When he does, the man wearing the explosive vest keels over in a dead faint.

  • Discworld:
    • In Moving Pictures, Victor ties up one of the Dungeon Things in filmstrip and collects the rest of the octo-cellulose films in a pile around it, then realizes he doesn't have any matches to ignite the film with.
    • Briefly poses a problem for Skimmer in The Fifth Elephant when he needs to light a signal flare on a windy rooftop. His matches blow out almost instantly, but a blazing branch from the fireplace inside proves more resistant.
    • In the fiction portion of The Science of Discworld II, one of the signs that the "edge people" never developed the capacity for imagination and storytelling is that they can't light a fire: they gather up smoldering embers from lightning-struck trees, then keep them burning for months or years at a stretch.
    • Sam Vimes really wants a cigar. He also realizes that he is running low on matches and will absolutely need a fire to survive. He has a cigar.
  • In the Earth's Children series both Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal people know how to make fire but it's a long, tedious process involving rubbing two sticks together. The Neanderthals find it easier to just carry a burning coal everywhere they go. Ayla discovers making sparks using flint & iron pyrite, which makes making fire magically easy.
  • Subverted in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Arthur Weasley has immense difficulty with lighting a campfire while camping at the Quidditch World Cup. However, he is a wizard with little to no experience with non-magical technology such as matches and is so excited when he finally manages to light one that he drops it in surprise. Hermione, a muggleborn witch, is able to start the fire with no problem.
  • In The Invisible Man, Griffin prepares to torch his apartment after having rendered himself invisible, only to realize he doesn't have any matches. He gets his first experience of the difficulties faced by an Invisible Streaker in sneaking past his landlord and two others who are searching the house to swipe some from downstairs.
  • The Mysterious Island: After the heroes are washed up on a desert island, one finds he has a still-dry match. He's afraid to use it, as he's certain he'll scratch it too hard, wasting it. Later they figure out how to light fires with a magnifying glass.
  • The protagonist of John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice attempts this in "The Burning Bridge" on the titular structure, is successful but is captured and later enslaved by the Proud Warrior Race Guys.
  • Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" (1908). A man in the Yukon tries to build a fire in -75 degree Fahrenheit weather. While the man actually has plenty of matches, he winds up lighting them all at once when fumbling with his frozen fingers, which eventually causes his death by freezing.
  • Tolkien's Legendarium:
    • This comes up a few times in The Hobbit when Gandalf isn't around to help them (usually to help make it clear how uncomfortable Bilbo is). One of the dwarves is noted as being particularly good at lighting fires but still unable to succeed.
    • Another case comes up on Caradhras in The Lord of the Rings. The major characters are attempting to build a fire in a snowstorm, but as might be expected in such a situation, it doesn't go well. It takes Gandalf using his wizard magic to get it to light. He's a bit annoyed, because:
      Gandalf: If there are any to see, then I at least am revealed to them. I have written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Arrow, "The Odyssey": In a flashback scene to when they were stranded on Lian Yu island, Slade Wilson is watching Oliver Queen as he vainly rubs two sticks together.
    Oliver: Well, you know, you're welcome to help.
    [Slade produces zippo lighter]
    Oliver: I've been working on this for two hours!
    Slade: I know. I was watching you. Thank you for the entertainment.
  • In the first Doctor Who serial "An Unearthly Child" the Doctor and his companions go back to prehistory and visit a small tribe of cavemen. The leader of the tribe is the leader because he is the only one who knows how to make fire. Ian says that in his tribe (i.e. the Doctor and companions) the firemaker is the least important man.
  • Wilderness-survival programs like Dual Survival often play it for drama when their hosts' attempts to get a campfire started aren't immediately successful. Often specifically averted on Naked And Afraid when the survivalist chooses a fire starter as their one survival item. Sometimes they don't work, though...
  • Family Matters: When Steve and Carl are lost in the woods when cutting down a Christmas tree. Steve has three matches in his survival kit. When Carl lights the first, Steve sneezes it out but got the firewood lighted on the second try.
  • In an episode of Gilligan's Island Gilligan has very few waterproof matches, which will come in handy if they get waterlogged. But when the time comes to build a fire, he can't; Gilligan wasted all the matches testing them.
  • The Goodies:
    • In "Scoutrageous", after getting thrown out of Tim's Scout platoon, Bill and Graham become rogue Scouts who start shaking people down for money.
      Bill: What a pity it would be if it were to... catch fire. I mean if I were to accidentally rub these two sticks together...
    • Thanks to their efforts the Scouts are declared an illegal organisation, and Tim Brooke-Taylor tries to burn all his Scout gear using the two sticks method but has less success than Bill. Graham obligingly hands Tim a cigarette lighter... which Tim proceeds to rub against one of the sticks.
  • Played for dark humor on Gotham, when the Maniax attempt to light a gasoline-soaked school bus full of cheerleaders on fire. First Jerome's lighter fails him repeatedly, and then Dobkins gets knocked out by Detective Gordon before he can get a spark out of it.
  • Played for Laughs in a Howie Mandel HBO special from the mid-1980s. The special is filmed in Chicago, so at one point he takes the viewer on a tour of the city. They got to Water Tower Place, which was one of the only (if not the only) edifices to survive the Great Chicago Fire. Howie demonstrates this by trying to light it with a match but fails. "See? An asbestos building!"
  • Jonathan Creek: In "Daemon's Roost", Jonathan is being dragged into a pit of bones by a crazed killer. He screams for Polly to grab the book of matches lying on the floor. She then fumbles desperately attempting to light one.
  • The Last of Us. Having become infected, Theresa spills gasoline and hand grenades across the floor to immolate herself and as many infected as she can so they won't follow Joel and Ellie. Instead of just pulling the pin on a grenade she tries to use her zippo keeps refusing to light until the very last moment. Justified given that her zippo may well have been built over twenty years ago.
  • MythBusters has confronted this trope several times, when their attempts to light up a Powder Trail, pooled gasoline, methane-filled outhouse, or the like have failed repeatedly. During the testing of one myth, the Build Team attempts to start a fire with the tried-and-true "rubbing two sticks together" method... and they fail miserably, almost leading them to declare it a myth that they've just busted.
    Kari Byron: It is possible to start a fire this way; it's been documented over and over. We just really suck at it.
  • In the NCIS episode "Twenty Klicks", McGee tries to start a fire via stick rubbing, until Gibbs produces a lighter.
  • Star Trek:
    • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok", Captain Picard gets a fire going by the rubbing sticks method, only for it to go out again. Dathon, watching nearby from his successfully lit fire, finds it amusing, but on seeing Picard shivering in the cold, tosses him a burning stick from his fire. Picard has been unable to communicate with Dathon, but the gesture starts the ball rolling, teaching Picard his term for either "giving" or "generosity".
    • Chakotay from Star Trek: Voyager demonstrates that, despite being a Magical Native American, he's "the only Indian who can't light a fire by rubbing two sticks together." Until he gets the idea to use hair as kindling, which he borrows from Captain Janeway, making her a literal Fiery Redhead!
    • Captain Archer from Star Trek: Enterprise skips the stick-rubbing part and just uses a phaser.
  • Supernatural has both straight and meta-examples: As salting and burning the remains are their go-to method for getting rid of ghosts, most episodes have the heroes lighting at least one fire. It's usually easy, but in the episode at the Supernatural convention, cosplayers have to actually act as the ghost hunters they're dressed as. Among other problems, they have difficulty getting their lighter to light and comment that Dean never has this problem. Then in the outtakes, they use that scene to preface a whole lot of clips of Dean's actor failing to get his lighter to light.

    Video Games 
  • In mobile game "Day R Survival" the in-game time of setting up a campfire depends on a tool used: matches, lighters, torches, and such take between 5 and 15 minutes, flint kindles a fire in half an hour while using nothing but pieces of wood will require you to spend three hours on it.
  • Lighting a fire is actually a minigame in the Lost in Blue series.
  • Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge: Guybrush uses the last match to blow a hole in the ground so he can find Big Whoop.
  • Professor Layton and the Curious Village: A brain teaser has you stuck in a remote cabin in the woods with only one match. You see a stove, an oil lamp, a fireplace, and a candle in the cabin. What should you light first? The answer, of course, is the match.
  • Tomb Raider (2013): The opening segment sees Lara Croft escape from a cave into a torrential downpour. She recovers survival gear from her crashed boat and lights a campfire with the last match in the box, setting up the Save Point system of the game.
  • A game mechanic in Green Hell. Lighting a fire requires several things: several sticks of various sizes, dry tinder, a tool to cause ignition, enough stamina to use the tool, and shelter from any rain that might be happening. Fire is necessary to cook meat or sterilize water, so the player can't long go without making one. However, they may not have enough tinder on hand, they have an ignition tool on hand, and they're not so exhausted that they don't have the energy left to actually operate the tool.

    Web Animation 
  • Happy Tree Friends: In "Get Whale Soon", Russell and Lumpy attempt to light a fire to get out of the whale they're trapped in, but Russell finds that he only has one match left. After some difficulty, he manages to light it... only for Lumpy to sneeze and put it out.

    Western Animation 
  • Played for Laughs in the Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse Camping Episode "Oh How Campy Too." Stacie attempts to kindle a fire, but since the show uses the characters' Living Toy status as its main source of humor, a Surprisingly Realistic Outcome ensues:
    Stacie: How am I supposed to make a fire with PLASTIC STICKS?!
  • On the Droopy cartoon "Wags to Riches", Spike tries to kill Droopy by opening all the gas lines in the room and offering him a cigar and lighter. He runs out and waits for the inevitable explosion, but when nothing happens, he looks through the keyhole and finds Droopy still fumbling with the lighter. Spike runs back inside and lights the cigar himself, but when he turns around to give it to Droopy, he is gone. A second later, the room explodes.
  • Played for Laughs in an episode of Family Guy: Cookie Monster is in rehab and the second he goes into a bathroom stall, he pulls out a spoonful of cookie dough and screams "C'mon, c'mon!" while trying, and failing, to bake it with a lighter.
  • In the Looney Tunes short "The Stupor Salesman", Daffy Duck is a Traveling Salesman trying to sell to a crook. He tries to show a lighter by using it to light a gas oven, but the lighter won't spark. Eventually, the crook throws Daffy out and tries the lighter himself, but by then the house is filled with gas, causing the home to explode.

Alternative Title(s): Down To The Last Match