The Cavalry Officer is the leader of a group of mounted soldiers. Although by no means restricted to the genre, he appears especially as a stock character in Western fiction. Given the ridiculously huge nature of the American west, cavalry forces were the workhorses of military forces trying to control the frontier. The Cavalry Officer is typically a professional soldier but may also be represented by anyone in control of mounted civilian or paramilitary forces (such as Texas Rangers, for example).
However, as cavalry forces have operated in one form or another all over the world throughout history, the trope of the Cavalry Officer extends beyond the use in the Western. The role of the Cavalry Officer implies a certain amount of macho swagger and hubris. They are authoritative and demanding, and contemptuous of people of lesser social station. Even if the officer is in command of an infantry unit, if he is riding a horse while his men are hoofing it, he still counts as a Cavalry Officer. On the positive side, a Cool Horse is a Loyal Animal Companion giving the rider plenty of Pet the Dog moments, and a cavalry charge looks so cool even if often it is Hollywood Tactics . And a Cavalry Officer will have more varied adventures roaming about in no mans land then an infantryman standing in formation. If the Cavalry Officer is a good guy, the negative traits may be played down or diminish over the course of the story. Depending on the setting, the Cavalry Officer is usually of noble birth, or at least very wealthy, and is characteristically arrogant and aristocratic.
This is partly because it usually was more expensive to serve in the cavalry than in other arms of service because they wore more glamorous dress and had to pay for their own horses — and as a cavalryman you generally could expect to lose at least one or two horses in the course of a campaign. Add to this a tendency of cavalry officers to look upon themselves as a continuation of of the knights of old in more modern times, and you see why in many films set in historic wars a Cavalry Officer tends to be more strict in the appliance of military rituals and codes of honour — when you have a duel scene, there is often a cavalry officer involved — and also more likely to indulge in a spendthrift "aristocratic" lifestyle including gambling, womanizing, racing and various eccentricities to a larger extent than officers of other services. In this context it is worth recalling that both the positive "chivalrous" and the negative "cavalier" are derived from a French root meaning "horseman".
Being a cavalry officer also required very specialized skills and a readiness to take (calculated) risks. To be successful, cavalry usually had to charge, and thus the stereotype of cavalry officers favouring Attack! Attack! Attack! and Zerg Rush tactics, also when put in command of infantry, emerged. Conversely, cavalry standing in one place within the range of enemy artillery or infantry fire often meant having to take losses without being able to inflict some on the enemy, so a sensible officer would take his men out of range, which could lead others to charge the cavalry with not having the stomach for a real fight and waging a war of their own divorced from the real one. Thus in the first half of the The American Civil War, a popular dig among the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac was the question: "Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?" To be fair there were plenty of dead cavalrymen, but unfortunately their most important work took place in skirmishes and recon missions far from the main army where no infantry could see their "deadness".
If the Cavalry Officer is one of the good guys, you can expect him to be leading The Cavalry as they come riding in to save the day! In this case, he is often a Supporting Leader. Cavalry Officers have a notoriously poor grasp of time, because they will always manage to arrive at the last possible moment.
If the Cavalry Officer is a bad guy, he will inevitably slaughter some innocents and spark a Roaring Rampage of Revenge. This will often lead to the hero seeking Disproportionate Retribution because It's Personal. If the villainous Cavalry Officer targets a group of Native Americans, it is guaranteed to lead to Genocide Backfire.
In some ways the Cavalry Officer survived the death of cavalry as an important force on the battlefield, and that his heritage continued in the age of industrialized warfare. For instance, once World War I became dominated by trench warfare, quite a number of cavalry officers joined the nascent air service to become fighter pilots, the most famous one being former uhlan officer Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, the Red Baron. This probably helped contribute to air combat acquiring its "chivalric" image. Later on, many British cavalry regiments were re-equipped with tanks instead of horses, but cavalry traditions and modes of thinking persisted. British military historian Corelli Barnett theorised that these led to a tendency to neglect co-operation between armour, mechanised infantry, and artillery. Other cavalry units were equipped with armoured cars or helicopters.
See: Mounted Combat.
- Les Tuniques Bleues is about two cavalrymen both in the Wild West and during the Civil War. The only one who's really typical is Captain Stark, who knows how to do one thing only ("CHAAAAAAAARRRGGGEEEEE!!!"), much to the dismay of his underlings (he once led a charge with a grand total of three men including himself). He also refuses to speak to people on foot, was found straddling a cannon on one occasion where his horse was missing, an has only once been seen fleeing battle, and that was because there was a wildfire sweeping across the battlefield.
- In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Blondie and Tuco encounter a Confederate cavalry officer, who turns out to be a Union cavalry officer after brushing the gray dust off his uniform.
- Dances with Wolves features Cavalry Officers, both good and bad.
- The Burrowers includes perhaps the most brutally sadistic and completely oblivious Cavalry Officer since Custer himself.
- Many of John Ford's films feature different types of Cavalry Officers:
- The films of the "Cavalry Trilogy" - Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande - are all about cavalry outposts in the West and show quite a bit of the conventions and rituals of the cavalry. Various types of Cavalry Officer appear, including some who serve as non-coms or other ranks - veterans of the The American Civil War who had either served in the Confederate Army or with Northern commissions that only lasted for the duration of the war.
- The Horse Soldiers, based on the real life Grierson Raid of 1863, relates an episode from the The American Civil War. Here most of the officers are not professional soldiers, but very much shaped by their civilian jobs; the only exception is the medical officer.
- Sergeant Rutledge: White officers, black enlisted men.
- The Searchers: The regular cavalry somewhat lampooned, in particular with the young lieutenant who is the colonel's son and adjutant, and who in the charge only manages to cause an embarrassing wound to the head of the Texas Rangers with his sabre.
- Captain Love in The Mask of Zorro is a twisted example, partially based on the director's vision of a young Custer.
- George Armstrong Custer's life and death became the subject of several films, including e. g. They Died with Their Boots On and Little Big Man.
- The Lone Ranger: He and his regiment are called in to take care of the Comanche thinking they broke the treaty and raided settlements. He later joins forces with the villains after learning he spilled innocent blood.
- Utu (1983): Lt. Elliot (heroic) and Col. Elliot (villainous).
- "Ole Devil" Hardin in the Ole Devil Hardin series (set during the Texan war of Independence) and his nephew Dusty Fog in the Civil War series (set during the The American Civil War); both written by J.T. Edson.
- Deadwood includes an episode with an arrogant Cavalry Officer on his way to avenge Custer. Almost everyone in town requests a favor of him, and he is not amused.
- Captain Parmenter from F Troop is a comedic example, being lauded for heroism after accidentally instigating a successful cavalry charge at the Battle of Appomattox while still a private.
- The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), featuring Errol Flynn and David Niven as British lancer officers on the Northwestern Frontier and in the Crimean War.
- Lord Uxbridge and Lord Ponsonby in Sergey Bondarchuk's Waterloo.
- The Duellists.
- Tom Cruise's character in The Last Samurai is a prime example of a Cavalry Officer.
- We Were Soldiers presents us with two modern flavors of this: The helicopter pilots, led by Major Bruce "Snake Shit" Crandall go so far as to wear Custom Uniforms complete with the classic western Stetson hats. Meanwhile, the "Air Cav" ground troops are lead by Lt. Colonel Hal Moore, a paratrooper who believes that an officer's place in battle is at the front of his men, "where the metal meets the meat." Both of course, were Real Life military officers.
- In The Wedding March Nicki is a dashing cavalry officer on horseback who is The Casanova when he is out of uniform. Mitzi the common girl is taken with him when she sees him on parade.
- The Eagle stars Rudolph Valentino as a handsome 18th century Russian cavalry officer—too handsome, as he attracts the unwanted attentions of Catherine the Great.
- Éomer in The Lord of the Rings is an example of a Cavalry Officer in a non-western setting.
- Several characters in War and Peace, notably Nikolay Rostov, Denisov, and Dolokhov.
- The hero of Theodor Fontane's novel Schach von Wuthenow (which was also filmed) is an officer of an elite Prussian horse guards regiment, the Gens d'armes, the aristocratic officers of which were notorious for their arrogance and boisterousness. As it is set on the eve of the catastrophic defeat of 1806, there is a sense of dark foreboding.
- Arthur Conan Doyle's Brigadier Gerard stories, which to a large extent were based on the memoirs of the French Colonel Marbot.
- Harry Flashman buys a commission as a cavalry officer shortly after being expelled from Rugby and spends most of his career more or less in that service. He displays most of the lifestyle traits, as do many of his comrades.
- Cavalry officers show up from time to time in the Sharpe series; they usually show contempt for the title character, an infantry officer who worked his way up from being a common soldier.
- John Carter of the Barsoom Cycle of books and... John Carter is an ex cavalry-man of the state of Virginia in the American Civil War. In the film, he is forced into being one again for the state of Arizona (despite three escape attempts in the space of five minutes). He is an Officer and a Gentleman despite very much not looking the part (the only time we see him clean-shaven in the whole movie is the brief period before his wife and child are killed and his house burned).
- Max Hennessey's trilogy (Soldiers of the Queen, Blunted Lance and The Iron Stallions) follows three generations of the Goff family, founders of the (fictional) 19th Lancers, from the Charge of the Light Brigade to World War II.
- Captain "Give-Em-Hell" Stokes of Django Wexler's The Shadow Campaigns series. Despite his well known enthusiasm, he's generally considered competent, coming to the aid of the heroes while hollering at the top of his lungs at several points in the books.
Live Action Television
- Colonel Sherman Potter in M*A*S*H is on his fourth war in Korea; prior to training as a doctor he had been a cavalryman, and he takes every opportunity to ride as recreation from his job of commanding a military hospital.
- Major von Rauffenstein in The Grand Illusion, a cavalry officer turned fighter pilot.
- Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, the commander of an air cavalry unit.
- The title character in Patton. Not only was he once a horse Cavalry Officer, he played the trope to a hilt.
- Josh Goff in The Iron Stallions by Max Hennessey — the third of this trilogy about the Goff cavalry family. As it takes place in World War II, the 19th Lancers have now become an armoured regiment.
- Real Life subversion: aristocrats in Ancient Greece often preferred to get off their horses and take a place in the phalanx, lest all the Determined Homesteaders in the city think them wussy for refusing to fight like a Real Man. Another reason was that this was before the perfection of stirrups (1st century AD). A fighter on horseback was very likely to fall off — the Battle of Lake Ticinus (in the Punic Wars) started as a cavalry battle but ended as an infantry battle because so many riders did just that.
- Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Great Cavalier general of the English Civil War, but even he was unable to stop his officers' and men's tendency to go off in mad pursuit after a successful charge. Because his opposite number Oliver Cromwell, a newcomer to the military, averted the Cavalry Officer trope and always maintained strict discipline, the Parliamentarian side was able to exploit the absence of the Royalist horse, e. g. in the battle of Marston Moor.
- General Hans Joachim von Zieten (1699-1786), colonel-in-chief of a Prussian hussar regiment was renowned as a leader of light cavalry; his propensity for ambushing the enemy earned him the sobriquet "Zieten aus dem Busch" (Zieten from the bush). However, he also subverted the trope somewhat, being a pious Lutheran of exemplary morals and also a competent leader of entire armies - when Frederick the Great had to leave on other business, he usually entrusted his army to him. One measure of his excellence as a leader as opposed to a mere fighter was that he is said to have drawn his sabre in anger just once during the entire Seven Years' War, even though he led plenty of charges, ambushes etc. (On one reconnaissance he and a few others were surprised by a group of Austrian cavalrymen, compelling him to literally cut his way through).
- Napoleon's cavalry leader Marshal Joachim Murat conformed to many of the tropes about the Cavalry Officer, being the most flashy dresser in the army and displaying bravery to the point of foolhardiness. When he led the great charge at the battle of Eylau, he is said to have kept his sabre sheathed, only holding a riding-crop in his right hand. And his performance as temporary commander of the French army on the retreat from Moscow earned him a lot of criticism. True to the trope, his service as the King of Naples was similar, including moving too quickly after Napoleon's return and attacking Austria before Napoleon had France in order, which allowed the Allied Powers to crush the two in detail at Tolentino and Waterloo respectively, and giving the final order with aplomb at his own execution: "Straight to the heart but spare the face. Fire!"
- Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht Prince Blücher in many ways behaved like a "typical" hussar officer; he lost huge amounts of money gambling and injured himself while participating in a horse-race at age 72, but he was also highly successful leader of operations involving all arms.
- Several cavalry generals of the The American Civil War, notably the flashy J.E.B. Stuart and George Armstrong Custer, conformed to the image, while some of their more business-like peers like Nathan Bedford Forrest and Phil Sheridan showed how cavalry could be successfully used at the time as mounted infantry. Perhaps not suprisingly, Stuart and Custer had been professional cavalry officers before the war, while Forrest had been a civilian and Sheridan came from the infantry and only was transferred to the cavaly in May 1862.
- Masinissa, the Numidian Warrior Prince who led the cavalry allied to Scipio Africanus in the Battle of Zama.
- Ghenghis Khan.
- Georges D'Antes, the man who killed Alexander Pushkin in a duel, was an officer in the Chevalier Guard Regiment. True to the book, he tried to seduce Pushkin's wife while being cocky, causing Pushkin to call him to the field of honour.
- German Field Marshal August von Mackensen, "the Last Hussar", started his career as a cavalryman in the Franco-Prussian War and went on to become one of the most dynamic, competent, and successful commanders on either side in World War I.