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Weapons Understudies
We're ready for our close-up.

When massive battles are staged for war movies it can be a major problem gathering historically accurate hardware for the scenes. Many classic weapons systems are unavailable for film use either because there are no more functioning examples or the equipment in question is owned by hostile states who aren't going to allow Hollywood to play with their toys. So what's a producer to do?

Make the most of what you've got. If all you have is friendly hardware, then you issue it to everybody.

This trope is fading with CGI able to provide any weapons system you need. Furthermore, Soviet equipment like T-34, T-55, and T-72 tanks are increasingly available for discount prices, as well as on loan from US-friendly former East Bloc states such as Poland and the Czech Republic. This can replace German equipment in World War II movies also, as the Germans and Soviets extensively studied each others' equipment: if a T-55 with cheap wooden and plastic add-ons is painted to look like a Panther, even many military buffs will be fooled.note  But prior to its development it was not uncommon to see German Panzer divisions equipped with repainted American M47 tanks, the Luftwaffe flying P-51 Mustangs or Soviets flying Republic F-84 Thunderjets. Japanese Zeros were often played by North American T-6 Texan planes. One can even occasionally see a VW Type 181 Thing/Safari/Trekker from The Seventies subbing for a World War II Kuebelwagen, even though the latter are by no means hard to come by.

Granted, most people aren't going to know the difference beyond a few military hardware aficionados.

Somewhat surprisingly, the obvious solution is rarely used: the "enemy" uses "friendly" equipment because they have limited resources and use captured equipment. Militaries do this a lot in real life when at war, particularly during World War II.

See also Just Plane Wrong, Tanks, But No Tanks and Artistic License - Ships.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Film 
  • The movie Patton featured, ironically, postwar M47 Patton tanks playing German tanks, and M47 and M48 as World War II American tanks.
  • Kelly's Heroes: Three modified T-34s were used as Tigers, and a number of Yugoslav equipment, trucks and a single-engines trainer were used to represent American and German equipment. The most noticeable is an FN variant of the BAR, which uses a pistol grip, that the production crew tried their best to hide by putting a neckerchief on the soldier operating it.
  • Iron Eagle and Iron Eagle II featured Israeli C2 Kfir jets (modifed French Mirage III's) and American-built F-4 Phantom II fighters as Arab MiG's. The third movie had rebuilt WW2 warbirds playing themselves.
  • Battle of the Bulge had American M47 Patton tanks (painted in grey - which is completely incorrect for the period of the battle) standing in for German King Tigers and M24 Chafees standing in for the M4 Sherman.
  • The Hunters had American Republic F-84F Thunderstreaks subbing for North Korean MiG-15s.
  • Jet Pilot (1957) had Janet Leigh as a defecting Soviet pilot flying a Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star.
  • Battle of Britain used Spanish-built (and Rolls-Royce Merlin-engined!)) versions of Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters and Heinkel He-111 bombers, plus some real Spitfires. Together, they managed to put together the world's 35th largest air force at the time. Some Just Plane Wrong cases though, due to lack of available planes.
    • In addition, because there weren't anywhere near as many Hurricanes available as Spitfires, some long shots of Hurricane squadrons in flight are actually the '109s after a quick repainting.
    • And if one wants to get really pedantic, most of the Spitfires are later versions with considerable differences to the airframe and engine.
  • The (fictional) MiG-28 fighters in Top Gun were played by American F-5E Tiger II fighters.
  • In Never Say Never Again, the underbelly of a Concorde is used to double for a B-1B Lancer.
    • However establishing shots of an actual B-1B Lancer taking off and in flight were used.
  • In Red Dawn (1984), Aerospatiale Puma helicopters with added doodads play Mi-24 "Hind-A" helicopters (a very good likeness of the "Hind-A"). A mock-up of a T-72 tank was so accurate it caught the attention of two CIA men who wanted to know where it had come from.
  • Michael Bay movie Pearl Harbor managed to play this trope straight and avert it, often in the same scene:
    • Reasonably accurate reproduction and restored Spitfires, plus some CGI and restored Heinkels and Messerschmitts for the Battle of Britain scenes. Trope averted.
    • Reasonably good reproduction Zeroes, Kates, and Vals for the Japanese aircraft launching from the carrier, and excellent CGI models for the massed aerial formation shots. Trope averted.
    • Excellent almost-full-scale models of the battleships used for many scenes, and good CGI models for the wide shots. Trope averted.
    • Modern-day missile cruisers and destroyers (sometimes with wooden boxes to hide the missile launchers, sometimes not) play the smaller ships in Pearl Harbor during the attack. Trope played straight.
    • A reasonably accurate reproduction of the Japanese carrier Akagi in most shots, save a long shot where a modern nuclear-powered supercarrier was rather inexplicably used instead. Trope played both ways.
    • Modern angled-deck aircraft carrier playing the USS Hornet during the Doolittle's Raid sequence, with reasonably good reproduction and restored B-25s flying off it. Trope played both ways.
  • Tora! Tora! Tora! is based around the bombing of Pearl Harbour. It has a bunch of then-modern ships standing in for the vessels under attack, and a bunch of American T-6 Texan trainers extensively rebuilt to look like the Japanese carrier aircraft. Some of these rebuilds went on to appear in Midway and Pearl Harbor. Most of the American planes are actual restored planes or reasonably good scale models. When they were filming every single Zero ever made had been destroyed. The Zero is similar to the North American Texan in the first place, making it a natural Weapon Understudy.
    • Midway is an interesting case in of itself. In addition to the re-purposed and modified AT-6s, a number of restored FM-2s were used to represent the F4F-4s carried by the American carriers at the time of the battle. The FM-2 is a late-model variant of the Wildcat (technically an F4F-8) produced by General Motors to provide fighters for small Escort Carriers. Mockups of SBD Dauntless dive bombers and TBD Devastator torpedo bombers also appear in some hangar sequences. However Midway is also infamous for its use of historical stock footage, resulting in battle scenes that are made up of pretty much none of the aircraft that actually fought in the battle. One notorious scene of an SBD crashing and killing its pilot actually uses stock footage of a very obviously jet-powered fighter (a F9F Panther, I believe)!
  • Empire of the Sun featured a Soviet GAZ-69 jee... uh, light troop carrier as an Imperial-era Japanese military SUV.
  • The Russian film Zvezda (The Star) had several mocked-up tanks, type uncertain, which made reasonably believable Tiger I tanks.
    • Going by the photos available using a quick search, they are clearly T-54 or T-55 tanks with reasonable-looking fittings to resemble Tigers. Not as well done as in Band of Brothers (also a T-54/55) or Kelly's Heroes (T-34-85 tanks), though.
  • Many movies where a variant of an M1 Abrams tank makes an appearance are likely using convincingly mocked up Centurion tanks. Especially if said movies are not Backed by the Pentagon.
  • The Battle Of The River Plate (1956) used an American heavy cruiser, USS Salem, to substitute for the German pocket battleship Graf Spee since the real ship was scuttled after the battle. The British ships, by way of contrast, were played either by the actual ships that took part or by a ship of the same or similar class. Notably the film gave the ships prominent "acting credits" in the opening titles (HMS Sheffield as HMS Ajax, HMS Jamaica as HMS Exeter, INS Delhi (formerly HMNZS Achilles) as HMNZS Achilles and USS Salem as Admiral Graf Spee).
    • It's interesting to note that the USN was rabidly against any German/Nazi insignia or equipment on their ship, meaning that a scene showing the "Graf Spee" hoisting her battle ensigns had to be filmed aboard one of the British ships, and the German crew were filmed wearing American-style helmets. The producers have been criticised for the latter "mistake", but they had no choice.
  • Czechoslovak 1968 film Nebeští jezdci (The Sky Riders) (about World War II Czechoslovak airmen in the RAF) featured a mock-up of Vickers Wellington bomber, based upon a Lisunov Li-2 (Soviet licence production DC-3) transport. Sounds perhaps a bit strange - but the result was a quite convincing impression of the Wellington, though not capable of flight.
  • In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Uhura and Chekov beam into the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which was actually played by the non-nuclear USS Ranger as the Big-E was at sea at the time. Even if she wasn't, the Enterprise's reactor area was classified and radioactive to the point that it would have made the film usable.
  • Saving Private Ryan used quite realistically mocked-up T-34/85 tank as a substitute for the Tiger tank, and one of the Marders III self-propelled anti tank guns was a modern mock-up, based on the surviving Praga TNH/Pz 38 (t) chassis - virtually the same as the original Marder III used, the other was visually modified Swedish assault gun Sav m/43, also based on the Praga TNH chassis.
    • This might also slightly overlap with Tanks, But No Tanks, because the Marder IIIs are identified as Panzers in the film.
  • In-universe example in Captain America: The First Avenger. One of Cap's films features a tank that is obviously not a German Panzer, but an M3 Stuart with a Balkenkreuz painted on it.
  • In Casablanca, a Luftwaffe officer flies to Morocco in a Fokker Super Universal instead of a Junkers Ju 52, as the latter was only available in Germany during World War II. After the war, many working Ju52s became available for period films.
  • The Great Raid: In order to provide cover for the Rangers as they make the final approach to the camp, an airplane is sent to overfly the area to distract the Japanese, allowing them to get into position without being spotted. This occurred during the historical raid, in which a P-61 Black Widow night fighter was sent under orders to alter his power settings to make it sound from the ground as if he were experiencing an engine failure. However there are no remaining airworthy P-61s, so instead the film utilized a Lockheed Ventura light bomber for this scene.

     Live Action TV 
  • MacGyver "GX-1". See Just Plane Wrong.
  • Airwolf seems to use American MD 500 Defender helicopters to play Soviet and Soviet-made choppers on a frequent basis.
    • In a strange case of reality mirroring life, in 1985, North Korea covertly obtained 87 MD 500s... and turned them into gunships. They were publicly unveiled in 2013.
  • Similarly Magnum, P.I. once used an MD 500 series chopper to play an "experimental attack helicopter". Amusingly enough, T.C., who was brainwashed into flying it, uses the same model in his day job. One wonders why he didn't notice.
  • In Season 5 of 24 a Russian SSGN is played by an American submarine.
  • Arrow described a Strela launcher (with a range of under ten kilometers) as a SA-300 (a much larger missile with a range of as much as four hundred kilometers) and claimed it had a range of 2,400 kilometers, before using it to attempt to shoot down an aircraft flying straight overhead.
  • The short-lived series Supercarrier featured an American F-16 Fighting Falcon playing the (fictitious) MiG-28. Or, at least it did for the majority of shots. The in the one sequence, the same plane was "played" by foortage of an F-16, an F-5, very blatant Stock Footage of an F-14 and, finally, a very obvious model of an F/A-18. Supercarrier was like that.

    Music Videos 
  • The music video for "Sunset (Bird of Prey" by Fatboy Slim features a late-model Hawker Hunter painted in US Air Force livery, possibly to represent an F-105 Thunderchief. The resemblance from most angles isn't bad even if their performance isn't remotely comparable.

     Real Life 
  • American-made aircraft stand in for enemy planes in air-to-air combat training programs such a TOPGUN (nowadays replaced by the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, or NSAWC for short). When the Top Gun film was made, F-5E Tiger II fighters were used to play Soviet aircraft. F-15 and F-16 jets are used more often, these days.
    • US Navy and USMC also operated Israeli produced Kfir fighters (designated F-21s) as a training substitute for MiG-23s - though visually quite dissimilar, they had similar flight characteristics.
    • More recently, F/A-18's were used to simulate MiG-29 fighters.
  • The recently-declassified Constant Peg program involved US pilots training with real MiGs, acquired via defectors and other sources.
    • The Aggressor Squadrons are an interesting bunch. They fly in the Russian manner, and, according to Frederick Forsyth, speak Russian during their flights. They whipped the rookies, of course.
  • Sikorsky H-19/S-55 helicopters which were used in lieu of Soviet Hind helicopters. They not only played the part, they were actually dressed up for the part as well. The final result looks remarkably Hind-like — the likeness was even better than the dressed up choppers in Red Dawn (1984).
  • During the Cold War, Army units at Fort Irwin, California used M551 Sheridan light tanks and humvees dressed up to imitate Soviet T80 tanks and BRDM scout vehicles, respectively. The Sheridans have been replaced by dressed-up M1 Abrams (nicknamed the "M1 KVT" or "Krasnovian Variant Tank"). Of course, these don't see quite as much use these days as most training presently focuses on the War On Terror.

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