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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.

And fuses, trails of powder, bonfires or explosive gases never, ever light when you need them. 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.


Supertrope of Down to the Last Match. 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 and 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 civilisation). 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 — Animated 
  • 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 Disney's Mulan, during the battle with the Huns, Mulan is trying to light the last firework but she drops her match. She eventually resorts to using Mushu's dragon breath to light it at the last second.
  • Sid the sloth has mixed success in starting a fire in Ice Age. His first effort by rubbing sticks (in the rain, I might add) is pathetic. His second effort, rubbing flint against stone, produces sparks that ignite kindling. And his tail.
  • 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).

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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 The Fifth Element, the fate of Earth depends on lighting the last match the heroes have left. It's as dramatic as it sounds.
  • At the beginning of Journey to the Center of the Earth (the 2008 movie), 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, showing that he finally is becoming acquainted with his situation on the lonely island.
  • 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 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 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In the original Pete's Dragon, 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.
  • 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.
  • Sky Bandits: When Barney and Luke attempt to blow the bridge over the canyon to prevent the Posse 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 with 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Quest for Fire the prehistoric tribe obtains fire from lightning strikes or volcanoes, but can't make it themselves. When the fire goes out, three of them have to go on a journey to find a new source.
  • In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Mrs. Muir tries to light a candle, but the ghost keeps blowing out the matches.

  • 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. He fails, which eventually causes his death by freezing.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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:
    "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."
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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...
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In the first Doctor Who serial "An Unearthly Child" the Doctor and his companions go back to 1 Million B.C. 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.
  • 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 an episode of Gilligan's Island Gilligan has a very few waterproof matches, which will come in handy if they get waterlogged. But when time comes to build a fire he can't; Gilligan wasted all the matches on testing them.
  • 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) edifice to survive the Great Chicago Fire. Howie demonstrates by trying to light it with a match but fails. "See? An asbestos building!"
  • 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.
  • Captain Archer from Star Trek: Enterprise skips the stick-rubbing part and just uses a phaser.
  • In the NCIS episode "Twenty Klicks," McGee tries to start a fire via stick rubbing, until Gibbs produces a lighter.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Video Games 
  • Lighting a fire is actually a minigame in the Lost in Blue series.
  • Simply finding the materials to light a fire is a common challenge in many inventory-based casual 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.

    Western Animation 
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Real Life 
  • Lighting campfires can be difficult even with matches if the air is too humid, the wind too erratic, or the available tinder, too damp or inadequate. There's a reason why well-prepared campers bring along fire starters such as potassium permanganate and glycerin, not just something to make sparks.
  • Lighting things on fire without matches is actually really hard, especially if one is just using the "rub two sticks together" trick.
    • Not helped by the fact that very few people even know how to do this, any more - or even that it takes a bit more than just two sticks to do anywhere near efficiently.
    • In the Boy Scouts, kids are taught the "rub pieces of wood together" method and similar methods as a distant last resort. If nothing else, it can help someone keep their body temperature up via repetitive movement. They're also taught that it's better to Be Prepared and bring proper firestarting gear.
  • In Real Life, moors, marshes and other damp stretches of land are notoriously hard places in which to light fires, for obvious reasons. The trick is to split logs open and light the dry wood in the middle.
    • Also, you can stack the wood up, with space between the logs, to get it off the ground and allow it to dry out. Thus, you'll have a ready supply of dry fuel after a few hours or a day. And don't forget that while a log is hard to light on fire, a pile of dry leaves or paper is not nearly so difficult. Light the leaves, use them to ignite some twigs, use those to get some sticks burning, and work your way up until you have a log burning.
  • This can happen to people who assume hair is more flammable than it actually is, and try to use it as kindling. This never works because hair is made mostly of keratin, which is a protein which contains a lot of cysteine. Disulphide bonds link thiol groups on cysteine molecules together, which stabilises the protein and makes it difficult to decompose.
  • Needless to say, safety concerns ensure that this trope is to some extent an enforced one in reality: if matches, lighters, lighter fluids, and other means of ignition were made too easily set light, they'd be more prone to ignite accidentally and set things on fire that aren't intended to be. The chemical mixtures used in matchheads, lantern fuels, and the like are therefore formulated to be flammable but not excessively so, ensuring it takes directed effort to set them ablaze.


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