Cavalry Refusal

In 1936 it was clear to everyone that if Britain would only help the Spanish Government, even to the extent of a few million pounds' worth of arms, Franco would collapse and German strategy would be severely dislocated... Yet in the most mean, cowardly, hypocritical way the British ruling class did everything they could to hand Spain over to Franco and the Nazis.
George Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War

Our heroes are in trouble. They're being completely slaughtered by the Big Bad's forces, who are obviously too strong for them... but wait! There is a large regiment of cavalry in the area. Let's just call in these guys and the Big Bad will be easily defeated.

Or so you'd think. In fact, the cavalry don't feel like rushing in to save the day at all, and stubbornly refuse your desperate call for help. Perhaps they have some kind of Obstructive Code of Conduct forbidding them to intervene. Perhaps the Big Bad has powerful friends whom they don't want to get into trouble with. Or the Cavalry are organised more or less democratically and some of them are opposed to helping the heroes (or they all agree about that, but argue endlessly about the details). Whatever the reason, the Cavalry refuses.

This trope is in play when the heroes need help, and there is an entity which could and/or should provide it but says 'Screw you'. Can lead to the heroes (and, if the unwilling Cavalry's excuse is particularly poor, the audience) exclaiming 'Why don't you do something?' or 'What The Hell, Hero?' If the heroes looked up to their supposed protectors, this will result in a Broken Pedestal.

Comes in two varieties:
  • Type A is when the unwilling Cavalry is a (supposedly) neutral authority figure with power over both the heroes and the villains. They don't rush in to protect the heroes, even if the villain is clearly violating the rules which they are supposed to enforce - for example, in a schoolyard setting, a teacher not doing anything to protect the bullied protagonist. Related to Adults Are Useless and Police Are Useless.
  • Type B is when the Cavalry have no formal power over the villains, but are big and strong enough to significantly aid the heroes. They are supposed to be on the heroes' side (thus making them potential Cavalry), but refuse to help.

Compare Cavalry Betrayal (when the Cavalry does show up, but turns out not to be on the heroes' side after all).


Type A

  • In Last Exile, the Guild (an organisation supposed to enforce The Laws and Customs of War) does nothing to help an army which is being attacked with "forbidden" tactics, because they favour the offending army.

Real Life
  • It's hard to keep count of the times the United Nations have refused the Cavalry call (largely by calling "Genocide" a "Civil War"), due to the decision-making process which allows several powerful nations, whose interests are often diametrically opposed, a veto.
    • The General Assembly attempted to Loophole Abuse their way around this deadlock of the Security Council through enacting Resolution 377(A), i.e. "Uniting for Peace". It's only worked once in a while.
  • The United Nations' predecessor, the League of Nations, wasn't exactly eager Cavalry, either - they stood and watched while the Japanese invaded (Chinese) Manchuria, the Italians brutally conquered Abyssinia and a handful of Spanish generals staged a coup against their government which led to the Spanish Civil War.

Type B

  • In Zulu, a force of actual cavalry arrives upon the scene where the heroes are making a Last Stand... and promptly flees. This happened in Real Life, too, but in reality, the cavalry were much more justified in their flight than depicted in the film.
  • Thranduil in The Hobbit is shown in flashbacks to have refused to help the dwarves, both against Smaug in Erebor and against the orcs in Moria, choosing not to lead his people into a hopeless battle against an enemy that they have no chance of defeating. The White Council (minus Gandalf) were going to be a third one but the dwarves (with good reason) left before they could refuse to help them.
  • In Mulan, Mulan's Defensive Feint Trap fails due to this.

Professional Wrestling
  • Happens whenever a face (usually John Cena) and a heel are forced to be tag team partners. The heel will let the face take a beating and refuse to tag in or help him.
  • This pretty much happens whenever a face is getting a beatdown. The other faces in the back will rarely come to the rescue no matter how many heels are doing the beating. Whereas if a face is beating a heel, all the heel's friends will come to help. Yes, in Professional Wrestling, the bad guys are more loyal than the good guys.

Live-Action TV
  • Supernatural's first order of business after inventing a cavalry was inventing reasons for that cavalry not to help. The angels as a faction are stuck in a revolving door between this and Cavalry Betrayal. Refusal to answer the call happens regularly, but here are some notable examples:
  • Played oddly in one episode of Burn Notice. Team Westen is trying to get rid of a Mafia capo who's leaning on their client, which in the end comes down to hiring a bunch of scary looking guys to act as a replacement for his soldiers (the heroes have convinced the capo that his crew is no longer reliable). Then they get him to try and assassinate his boss, and then have the crew pull out at the critical moment.
  • In Firefly, at the Battle of Serenity Valley, the independents pull this on Mal's squad, ordering them to lay down arms rather than providing the air support they had promised. Of course, whether or not said air support would have turned the tide of the battle is unknown.

Video Games
  • In the introduction video to StarCraft: Brood War, a Terran colony finds itself the target of a literal Zerg Rush; a Terran warship shows up overhead, but promptly leaves again without doing anything for the besieged Terrans on the ground.
  • Zigzagged in the Renegade option at the end of Mass Effect. Shepard calls in the Systems Alliance Fifth Fleet under Admiral Hackett to stop the geth led by the Reaper Sovereign from starting the Reaper invasion. In the Renegade route, the fleet bypasses the Destiny Ascension and heads straight for the Citadel. Citadel space is saved by The Cavalry, for a couple years at least, but its leaders, trying to escape aboard the Destiny Ascension, die a fiery death at geth hands.
  • At the Battle of Ostagar in Dragon Age: Origins, the Warden is sent to light a beacon to signal Teyrn Loghain's reinforcements. When Loghain sees the beacon, he orders his forces to withdraw, allowing the Darkspawn to slaughter King Cailan's forces. Loghain does this because he believes the Darkspawn aren't massing in a true Blight and that Cailan's in bed with Orlais, the nation he fought bitterly against for Fereldan's freedom.

Web Comic
  • Paranormal Mystery Squad: A greater demon named K'aannl'ngua is set on attacking Las Vagas. The US Military prepares to defend the city, but is then ordered to stand down by an Animal Wrongs Group activist with a presidential order declaring K'aannl'ngua an endangered species. The military then pulls out and lets Las Vagas get wrecked while the heroes have to defeat it alone.

Western Animation
  • Jonny Quest The Real Adventures: That's what drove Ezekiel Rage into becoming a criminal. He was a good guy until falling victim to the trope - he was a spy for the U.S. Government when his cover got blown, which got worse when it turned out he brought his family along as a cover. He called for assistance and they refused to bail him out. His car ran off the road, killing his wife and daughter and leaving him horribly scarred and a whole lot messed up.

Real Life
  • Britain and France in the Spanish Civil War (see the page quote). They took this trope Up to Eleven by enforcing an arms embargo against the Republicans, on whose side they were supposed to be. In theory, there was an international embargo against both sides. In practice, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supplied the Nationalists with weapons, aircraft and auxiliary troops; the USSR similarly aided the Republicans, but on a much smaller scale. Only Britain and France actually upheld the embargo, in an attempt to appease Germany and prevent - or rather, forestall - World War II.
  • The USSR did this to Poland towards the end of World War II. As the Red Army drew close to Warsaw, the Polish Home Army rose up against the German occupation forces - but the Red Army had other priorities and did not come to their aid. The British offered to send planes to help, but they were denied access to Russian airbases. Needless to say, this ended badly for the Poles. Then again, if the Poles really considered the Red Army to be The Cavalry at all, it was at most in an Enemy Mine way, considering the kind of things the Russians had done to them only a few years before...
    • In Russian historiography these actions are usually excused by the nearest Red Army units exhausted in a protracted offensive and thus largely combat-ineffective. However, said historiography quickly proceeds to shift blame to the Poles for not coordinating with Moscow, and accuse them of trying to take over Warsaw without Soviet help so that the Soviets would not be able to set up a Communist puppet government (which is exactly what happened).
  • During the Battle of Lang Vei, Col. Lownds of the 26th Marines refused to send reinforcements to support the Green Berets and South Vietnamese militiamen being attacked by North Vietnamese tanks out of fear that his men might be ambushed en route, contributing to the disaster.
  • During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 against the Soviet Union, the US and other Western media welcomed and encouraged the revolutionaries to not give up, but when the Soviets sent an army to crush it and things turned ugly, they didn't intervene, not even in a diplomatic way. The USA was, of course, accused of encouraging a suicidal revolution, just to show the world how brutal the Soviets are. Meanwhile a lot of revolutionaries died with the belief that the American help is just about to arrive.
  • At the start of World War I, the Triple Alliance's (German Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire and Kingdom of Italy) plan for all-out war against the Triple Entente (United Kingdom, France and Russia) included, among other things, a two-pronged attack on France, with Germany invading from the north through Belgium and Italy invading from the south through the Alps and the coastal plains. The Italian government, between having a border contention with Austria-Hungary, the king having a personal and justified grudge with the German emperor and the country actually being in much better relations with France and Britain than with their own allies, cited Vienna declaring war first as a reason for staying neutral, as the treaty was supposed to work only for defensive wars. Italy would later enter the war on the Entente's side.
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade might have ended very differently if the Heavy Brigade had followed them into the valley, as it was supposed to. The Light Brigade made their objective, of the guns at the head of the valley, but lacked the force to hold them against the counter attack. Most of their casualties came from that counter attack, and subsequent retreat back down the valley.
  • The Republic of China would have stood a much better chance of resisting the Japanese invasion - or, at least, slowing them - had the Guomindang (KMT) and Communists (CCP) been able to work together. Instead, the Communists retreated to Yan'an and stayed out of it, for the most part.
    • The Japanese advance only slowed as a result of the Allies entering the war in 1941 - which could be seen as an example of The Cavalry in this case.
    • The CCP's Cavalry Refusal ultimately contributed to their victory over the KMT in the Chinese Civil War.