Line in the Sand

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

A hundred and eighty were challenged by Travis to die
By a line that he drew with his sword as the battle drew nigh
A man that crossed over the line was for glory, and he that was left better fly
And over the line crossed a hundred and seventy-nine

Jane Bowers (and many others), Remember the Alamo

Sometimes a military commander has a dangerous or even suicidal mission, but being a nice guy he will not order his men to go on the mission. Instead the commander will ask for volunteers to step forward, across a Line in the Sand. Generally all of his men will step forward.

Alternatively, if the mission is to stay put and defend a hopeless position, he will offer an escape route. Generally, no one will move.

A common subversion is to have most of the men step backward, except one, who is considered to have volunteered for the mission.

Sometimes the offer is presented as genuine – "Some of you have families. No-one will think any the less of you for going home to them" – and sometimes The Captain will even try to persuade people to leave. Other times, it is more of a rhetorical Rousing Speech, as with Shakespeare's Henry V saying that anyone who's scared can leave because he doesn't want to die in the company of cowards.

Sometimes the volunteering is gradual, with characters being shamed into it by seeing the others volunteer. In which case, the least experienced character leads off, and the most is usually the last.

A Sub-Trope of Opt Out. The villain occasionally gets a version, with the exception that anyone who opts out is Thrown From the Zeppelin. And some soldiers, on either side, will just say "Screw This, I'm Outta Here," and leave without their general's permission.

Examples of Line in the Sand include:

Anime and Manga

  • Played with in the Giant Robo OVA: In the prelude to the final battle, Daisaku (The Kid with the Remote Control for the titular Humongous Mecha) suffers a Heroic BSOD because he can't bring himself to Shoot the Dog—or the Cool Big Sis, who may or may not have joined the enemy. The Supporting Leader, disgusted, draws a line with his sword for Daisaku to cross when he's ready. Because of the battle's choreography, Daisaku doesn't need to cross the line to send Giant Robo into a Foe-Tossing Charge Just in Time. However, when Robo's damaged, Daisaku refuses the order to retreat—across the line, mind you—to a shelter, and charges directly into the Battle Royale With Cheese to save Robo.
  • In one of the later episodes of Eureka Seven, Holland officially disbands the Gekko State, and makes it very clear that nobody at all has to stay behind. Not a single person left (though off-screen apprehension was hinted at).
    • Captain Jurgen of the battleship Izumo, a major antagonist through most of the series, plays this trope in its most classic and literal sense when he learns about the true nature of Dewey's Project Ageha. His crew, of course, all joins him in the Heel Face Turn.
  • Subverted by Death Note. Souichirou Yagami, the police chief in charge of the Kira investigation (and the killer's unknowing father), pulls exactly this speech to his subordinates, down to the letter of the trope. Most of them take his offer, and he's left with a handful of men.
  • In Eyeshield 21, at the start of the "Death March" arc, Sakaki offers the Devil Bats a choice: either go back to Japan and take it easy over their summer break, or join Hiruma, Kurita, and himself on their trek across America and risk a career-ending injury. Naturally, they all opt to take the risk.
    • Well, except for guys like Ishimaru and the basketball guys, who they didn't even think to bring with them.
  • In Full Metal Panic! (the light novels and the manga, not yet the anime), after Amalgam all but annihilates Mithril, Tessa does a Line in the Sand speech to the Cool Ship's crew, telling everyone who wants to leave to come up to the flight deck in two hours' time. No one takes the offer.
  • In the Whitebeard War arc of One Piece, when Whitebeard is accused of selling out his commanders, he creates an escape route and tells anyone who wants to leave to use it, otherwise they can stay and die in battle. Everyone fights.
  • Gundam Seed: Of course Murrue Ramius does this to the Archangel crew. At this point, they are deserters, so she needs them to freely agree to fight at her side before she can give them orders again.

Comic Books

  • Spoofed in one of the Asterix stories, where Chief Vitalstatistix angrily yells, "This is the end! Anyone not happy with my position [as leader] can push off!" Immediately, one of the men holding up the shield on which Vitalstatistix stands walks away, dumping the chief in the dust.
  • In an issue of Groo the Wanderer, a commander is given the unenviable task of assigning men into an army under Groo's command (likely suicide, given Groo's utter incompetence). He declares "anybody who wants to join Groo's army, take one step forward". Every man runs away except for one soldier who stands his ground with a determined look on his face. The pleased commander says "Well, at least there is one courageous man in this army." The soldier puts a hand to his ear and says "What?". "I said, at least there is..." "What?" The commander begins to sob. "This will go down in history as a bad joke told about the military!" "What?"
  • Happened frequently in Secret Six. Given the character of much of the team, they rarely refused a mission. Although Black Alice notably quit the Six rather than going on a mission to Hell.

Fan Works


  • In the otherwise forgettable Street Fighter movie, Colonel Guile makes this speech to his men after being ordered by an Obstructive Bureaucrat to disband his men and send them home instead of going after Bison. The speech ends with: "Now, who wants to go home...and who wants to go with ME?!" Every one of his men enthusiastically opt for the latter choice.
    • Every one of his men except for the cook, that is. The Obstructive Bureaucrat places the cook under armed guard to ensure that he doesn't run off, too.
  • Subverted in Disney's Ratatouille, when Linguini finally reveals the secret of his apparent ultracompetence as a chef, to the rest of the kitchen staff, just as they're getting ready to brave the critique of Antoine Ego, the most feared food-reviewer in Paris. He asks who will stand with him. They all leave. The love-interest and Token Girl comes back, though.
  • Parodied/subverted in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Zissou asks anyone in his crew who doesn't want to continue to step forward, and his confused German lieutenant does so because he thought he was supposed to cross the line if he did want to continue.
    • Of course, Zissou said 'If you're not against me, don't cross this line! If yes, do.' so it's not just the fact the he was German that made it confusing.
  • Double subverted in Disney's version of The Jungle Book: when Col. Hati turns his back after asking for volunteers to go look for Mowgli, the entire herd steps back as one, save for one elephant. He joins the line after a moment. Hati turns around, looks at everyone for a beat, then laughs and says, "Now that's what I like to see: devotion to duty!"
  • The historical genesis of this trope is parodied in Viva Max, when General Maximillian, after somewhat successfully attempting to recapture the Alamo, draws a line and asks his men who want to give in to the local sheriff's orders to leave. Everyone stars to cross, but go back when Max's assistant—the only man in the company actually carrying ammo—points a gun at them.
  • In the Japanese film Ichi the Killer, when heading into the final confrontation, the sadomachistic gang leader gives all of his henchmen the opportunity to back out. One of them takes him up on it, telling him that "it's time to hand back this sake cup we drank in friendship." The gangster responded by stabbing a spike through the henchman's foot and dragging him along anyway, spike and all. None of the other henchmen tried to leave.
  • In Cars, Sheriff asks for volunteers to be McQueen's legal representative. All back away except for Mater, who then cheerfully agrees.
  • Played straight in Hook, with a literal line in the dirt between the supporters of Rufio and the supporters of Peter.
  • In the film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Hagrid asks for volunteers to approach the hippogriff, and this trope happens, leaving Harry.
  • Accompanied by quite possibly the darkest version of this type of speech in Serenity. Then by a very nice one a bit later on.
  • Iron Jawed Angels: Knowing anyone who joins the picket line in front of the White House after war has been declared will be imprisoned, Alice asks for volunteers and stresses that this s a choice.
  • A smaller scale version happens in The Patriot. Right before the final battle, Dan and Occam and the rest of the American militia are facing down the superior British Army. Dan points out to Occam that he already served his required enlistment and that he could leave at any time. Occam confirms this and decides to stay anyways so he can fight beside his comrades.


  • The Lord of the Rings had a scene where Aragorn offered the people in his army a chance to do something less suicidal (by retaking an outpost) before he attacked the Black Gate. In this case, some of them actually do leave.
    • They already were going to leave, he just gave them something useful to do so they could retain some honor.
    • Parodied in Bored of the Rings. As the Army of the West approaches the Gates of Fordor, many start to desert. Finally Arrowroot decides to shame them into being courageous.

Arrowroot: "Peoples of the West! The battle before the Black Gate of Sorhed will be one of few against many; but the few are of pure heart and the many are of the filthy. Nevertheless, those of you who wish to cringe and run from the fight may do so to quicken our pace. Those who still ride with the King of Twodor will live forever in song and legend! The rest may go."
It is said that the dust cloud did not settle for many days after.

  • Played straight, for a wonder, in the Discworld novel Night Watch. Commander Vimes, pretending to be Sergeant Keel, draws a line and asks who will defend the Watch House with him. Barely a dozen men cross, although of course he knew who would. He mentions that later accounts will claim no one left.
    • Furthermore, he notes that many of those who did cross the line only did so as the peer pressure began to outweigh their fear.
  • In Shatterpoint, General Windu asks one of his higher-ranking clone troopers for the best pilots under his command, then changes his order and asks for volunteers, since it's one of those situations where hardly anyone's getting out alive. The trooper tells him that they'll all volunteer. It's what they're bred for.
  • An amusing subversion takes place in the David Drake - Eric Flint collaboration An Oblique Approach. General Belisarius asks for volunteers to come with him on a highly dangerous spy mission into a country that's planning to attack. Plenty of hands are raised. He picks the three men who "had enough sense not to volunteer."
    • In another Drake work, the Honorverse short story "A Grand Tour", the crew of a Manticoran destroyer that was attacked by a rogue Havenite cruiser manned by reluctant draftees are asked for volunteers on a potentially dangerous mission in a commandeered light cruiser of another power's Space Navy (long story) to get revenge on the Havenites. All, of course, step forward, but in a subversion the senior surviving member ordered the survivors to step forward and volunteer. All of them, however, would probably have volunteered anyway, to get revenge for the unprovoked attack.[1]
  • In The Sword of Truth Kahlan makes the escape offer to a hopelessly outnumbered force of soldiers. Then has the people who didn't choose to stick with her killed. Variants on this actually happen several times over the course of the series, due to their With Us or Against Us mentality.
    • Well that first time may have been justified, she wanted to be sure the deserters weren't going to betray them to the enemy, and when those sent to kill the deserters caught up to them, they were making straight for the enemy camp. Very convenient for her, given that she made this decision based on no evidence beyond them not wanting to be commanded by a strange woman who just showed up a few hours ago. To be fair to her, she's the leader of all the Midlands, it's reasonable to expect total compliance. Besides, if she was wrong, she killed fifty-some people who essentially deserted their service. If she was right and didn't act on it, she doomed the army and all the nearby cities. It's a pretty crappy choice, but that's the reality of it.
  • In By the Sword, a Valdemar novel by Mercedes Lackey, the noble mercenary captain Kerowyn offers her company a vote: to stay and help the Valdemarans against overwhelming odds or to work their way to the edge of the fighting and try to escape. Every single member votes to stay.
  • Played straight in the second book of A Song of Ice and Fire, when Theon Greyjoy, preparing to make the Last Stand in hostile territory, offers the choice to his men. All but a handful don't cross. Bitter but unsurprised by the lack of loyalty from his fellow Ironborn, he stays true to his word and lets them go. While not an overly sympathetic character in general, it's somewhat hard not to empathize with him there.
  • Invoked before the big battle of High Wizardry in the Young Wizards series: Wizards from all over Ireland and Europe have converged to fight a major battle against the Lone Power's forces, and Johnny, the European Senior, gives them the "think about your dependents or pre-existing wizardly obligations and be absolutely sure you can do this before crossing" version, given that people being killed would be a certainty.
  • Over the course of the Vatta's War series, Captain Ky gives the civilian-minded members of her crew not one but several chances to leave with full severance pay or transfer to a more peaceful ship as she shifts over the course of the series from a trader to an armed privateer to full military. Several do leave, many stay.
  • Subverted in The Hunt for Red October where some officers are asked to volunteer for a dangerous mission, and if they opt out "nothing more will be said". They volunteer of course, because they know something would be said if they failed to do so.

Live-Action TV

  • Subverted in Band of Brothers, where Lt. Welsh asks for volunteers to take a look at a suspicious looking house; although Blithe raises his hand, Welsh also says "You three have just volunteered too", thus ordering them to take a look instead of asking them if they want to.
  • In Stargate SG-1 General Hammond asks for volunteers to rescue SG-1, who have been captured by Hathor. Everyone steps forward before he's even finished the sentence.
  • Star Trek has a few examples in which the senior officers are asked to volunteer not only to accept danger but to back up the captain's defiance of Starfleet orders:
    • Kirk before stealing the Enterprise in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.
    • Picard before leaving his assigned patrol area to join a battle against the Borg in Star Trek: First Contact.
    • Deep Space Nine. The subversion appears during Worf's 'bachelor party', which his human friends wrongly assume will involve the usual Klingon carousing, but is actually an ordeal of self-torture and sleep deprivation. Worf asks who's first to have his chest carved on by a wicked-looking knife, and Bashir is too dead on his feet to notice that his friends have taken a sudden step backwards, leaving him as the 'volunteer'.
  • Subverted to hilarious effect on NCIS. Tony is asking his friends to help Ziva, who is framed and on the run. Palmer is alarmed to realize that they might not just end up fired, but jailed. Tony delivers the stock line for this trope, "no one's gonna think less of you if you want out, Palmer."

Palmer: Really?
DiNozzo: Well no. They probably would... at least I know I would.

  • The rebooted Battlestar Galactica plays it nice and straight in the finale, with a line taped down the center of the flight deck. This is played rather more realistically than most examples, as there are at least twice as many people who end up on the port (non-volunteer) side of the line. Though most of those were civilians, most of the Marines and Pilots do volunteer. Later, in the briefing room, Helo again asks for volunteers to pilot the Raptors for the mission; every hand in the room is up before he even finishes speaking.
  • Babylon 5: just before declaring independence from Earth, Sheridan gives a speech to this effect. Because J. Michael Straczynski considers the ones where everyone follows The Hero unrealistic, one background character opted out.


  • "There was a decorated general with a heart of gold / that likened him with all the stories he told / of past battles, won and lost, and legends of old / a seasoned veteran in his own time..." (Ask your college-age friends. Especially the ones that wear upturned collars.)


  • Older Than Feudalism: Appears in the biblical Book of Judges, 7:3. God commands Gideon to issue two tests in order to thin out the ranks of the Israelite army so that it would be apparent that the victory was won by God's power, not simply superior military might. In addition to permitting those who were afraid to participate in the upcoming battle to leave, Gideon also observed how the soldiers drank from a river; those who knelt down to drink were sent home.[2] These two tests thinned the Israelite army down from 32,000 to a mere 300. Oh yeah, and they won too.


  • Shakespeare's Henry V features Henry's rousing "St. Crispin's Day Speech," including the coining of the phrase, "band of brothers."
  • Of course, in Les Misérables. Enjolras does not wish to waste lives, and orders those men who have wives and children, or who have women dependent on them (mothers, sisters) to depart before the grand finale where everyone dies. Exact lyric: Let us not waste lives, let all women and fathers of children go from here

Video Games

  • Somewhat done in Kirby Super Star's "Revenge of Meta Knight" subgame, when Meta Knight asks his crew to escape the Halberd before they all perish. Naturally, they refuse.
    • Or rather, they refuse until their "one last attempt" at killing Kirby fails. After that, they flee.
  • Played straight in Advance Wars 2, in the Green Earth mission 'Sea Fortress'. You control Commander Eagle, who, naturally, has a strong airforce. However, the opposing CO this particular map foresaw this and deployed heavy anti-air defences all over the place. Eagle gives his men the option to pull out of this potentially fatal mission if they wished, but all stayed out of loyalty. It kind of makes you feel bad during the unavoidable massacre of most of your forces afterwards.
  • In Final Fantasy VII, before the last battle, Cloud asks each member of the party to think about whether they have a reason for fighting, and to only come back if they're convinced they do.
  • Before passing through the Betrayer's Gate in Neverwinter Nights 2, this is one of your options when dealing with your party members. Their reaction depends upon your Influence score with each of them, but the affirmative responses (especially from Gann or Safiya if you complete the romance subplot) are all Crowning Moments of Heartwarming.
  • Auron in Final Fantasy X gives a speech to this effect about three quarters through. It is also right before a nice juicy treble-boss fight.
  • In Fire Emblem: Sword of Seals, Brenya, an enemy general of the now fallen Bern, tells this to all her troops. They all choose to stay. This in only in the secret chapters needed for the true ending.

Web Comics

Western Animation

  • The Droopy Dog cartoon Northwest Hounded Police has the step backward subversion.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Arnook, the chief of the Northern Water Tribe gives his entire civilization the option of fighting or not before the Fire Nation attack in the Siege of the North.

Real Life

  • The source of the phrase: Francisco Pizarro's first expedition to Peru went badly. The second expedition brought more evidence of a native population in Peru. After bickering with his lieutenant Diego de Almagro, he retreated to Isla de Gallo while Diego tried to convince the governor of Nicaragua to approve their expedition, which was refused. When ships arrived to bring everybody else home, Pizarro drew a line in the sand and said "There lies Peru with its riches. Here, Panama and its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilian". Only 13 soldiers followed him. That's right, kids, Older Than You Think.
  • Supposedly, at the Battle of the Alamo, William Travis drew a line in the sand and asked for all who would defend the Alamo to step across the line. An invalid Jim Bowie asked to be carried over the line.
    • In the 1990s movie, the trope is also subverted in that Santa Ana sends a message to those settlers in the Alamo that whoever leaves will be pardoned, and reminds them that Mexico knows no racial segregation. Many of the militia accept the offer and leave with their families.
      • Pity it wasn't true. There were reasons Tejanos sided with the American settlers. However to give credit where it's due the women and children were spared.
  • The Duke of Cumberland is said to have given an order of this kind to his men shortly before the Battle of Culloden.
  1. this being prior to the official start of the war, with Manticore/Haven relations being on the edge of conflict, but neither party quite ready to kick off all-out war
  2. Some scholars believe that this test was meant to single out those who were most alert and battle-ready; the soldiers who knelt would have been at a greater disadvantage should they have been ambushed at that point.