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Weapons Understudies

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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 '70s subbing for a World War II Kuebelwagen, even though the latter are by no means hard to come by. Warships (before CGI) were the most challenging, because they aren't to be found in enthusiasts' garages or even museum collections; filmmakers historically had to rely on models, wartime stock footage (often an Anachronism Stew), or, if Backed by the Pentagon, wildly inappropriate modern ships.

This trope also extends to individual weapons; many films and television shows will commonly have Chinese-made Norinco Type 56 assault rifles substituting for genuine Russian-made Kalashnikov rifles, and a German Walther PPK can occasionally stand in for a Russian Makarov pistol. It's also not uncommon for western films to feature Browning M2 heavy machine guns dressed up to look like a Soviet DShK.

Granted, except for the most obvious cases, most people (beyond a few military hardware aficionados) probably aren't going to know the difference either way.

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.


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    Films — Live-Action 
  • The movie Patton featured postwar M48 Patton tanks playing German tanks, and M41 Walker-Bulldogs as World War II American tanks. Also, the Heinkel He-111s used by the Afrika Korps are played by Spanish-built CASA 2.111s. The CASA 2.111 was a Spanish built version of the Heinkel, after the war and using Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. Notably, there were more airworthy ones available than the Heinkel.
  • 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. It also used Israeli F-16 variants as American ones, due to lack of backing by the Pentagon.
    • The third movie had rebuilt WW2 warbirds playing themselves, with the exception of a recycled "Zero" T-6 from Tora! Tora! Tora! (see below) and weirdly enough a prototype plane called the ARES playing the part of a Me-263.
  • 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 production tried to get actual Junker Ju 87 dive-bombers for the film, but it was deemed too expensive to make surviving Stukas airworthy.
    • The Spanish built CASA 2.111s and Hispano Aviacion HA-1112s were mostly used as they were airworthy, having been used by the Fracoist Spanish Air Force well into the 1950s!
  • The (fictional) MiG-28 fighters in Top Gun were played by American F-5E Tiger II fighters.
    • The TOPGUN instructors fly A-4 Skyhawks in order to simulate the performance of Soviet fighters. This makes for something of a zigzagged trope on a meta level: the Skyhawks are portraying Skyhawks... Skyhawks whose role is to portray MiGs.note 
  • 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. The underbelly substitute likely had to do with the fact that the Lancer was still in the prototype phase at the time, and the USAF were really cagey about giving anyone too close a look at the Lancer in detail.
  • 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. One of the Pumas was reused in Rambo: First Blood Part II and again in Rambo III, with the fake canopy removed because it created unsafe flight characteristics. The pylons were kept as they were solid modifications that did not effect airworthiness.
  • The 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 (of a model which didn't exist until a year after the raid) 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 North 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. At the time of filming, there were no flyable Japanese Zeroes in existence, hence the use of the T-6 Texan.
  • Midway does much the same thing in using the T-6 as a stand-in for Japanese planes. Most of the scenes showing American TBD Devastators and SBD Dauntlesses are depicted using SB2U Vindicators. Several restored FM-2 Wildcats were used to represent the F4F-4s, though this is much more justified as the FM-2 is a late-war variant of the F4F and looks mostly identical. Mockups of SBD Dauntless dive bombers and TBD Devastator torpedo bombers also appear in some hangar sequences. Midway is also infamous for using historical stock footage anachronistically, resulting in scenes that show aircraft which did not exist at the time of the battle. Towards the end, there's even a brief shot of an American post-war jet fighter (possibly a F9F Panther)crashing onto the deck of a carrier.
  • 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 T-54 or T-55 tanks, which made reasonably believable Tiger I tanks. 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. Filming angle tried to use Nichelle Nichols' hair to obscure the conventional rectangular island and funnels of the conventionally-powered aircraft carrier.
  • 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.
  • 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 Ju 52s 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 perform a few aerobatics and 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.
  • Averted and played straight in A Bridge Too Far. Many of the halftracks for both the British and the Germans are genuine. The ones for XXX Corps had many of their parts stripped over the years, hence why the majority of them are used for scenes of the Allies assembling prior to the operation (if you look closely, you can see many of them missing components). The Panthers in Arnhem are played by post-war Leopard 1s of the Dutch Army.
  • White Tiger was supposed to use a very high-quality Tiger replica, which, due to Development Hell, was not complete on time. Instead they went with a dressed-up IS-2, with its turret placement noticeably different, and a result looking more like Porsche's Tiger prototype than the Henschel design. This is the least weird thing about that tank.
  • Valkyrie completely averts this trope. In an extended early scene set in North Africa, the German hero is seen as part of an Afrika Korps army with lots of impeccably period-accurate tanks, including the Pnz III.note  It takes frequent re-viewing to realise all this is extremely good CGI, possibly some of the best ever committed to film.
  • Under Siege has the battleship USS Alabama and submarine USS Drum depicting the USS Missouri and a North Korean submarine, respectively.
  • The Alabama and Drum were called upon once again in USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, where they depicted the Indianapolis and I-58, respectively, due to the fact that no pre-WWII-era "Treaty" Cruisers nor Japanese submarines are afloat to this day.
  • In The Caine Mutiny the titular ship, supposedly a WWI-era Clemson/Wickes-class destroyer converted to a destroyer-minesweeper (DMS), was played by the very different WWII-era USS Thompson, a Gleaves-class destroyer which was brand spanking new in 1943, but which at least was also a DMS conversion.
  • The late 60s/early 70s Soviet Osvobozhdenie (Liberation) film series features T-44 (a stepping stone between T-34 and T-54/55) as reasonably well done Tigers and IS-2s as Panthers. Less well done are the use of undisguised IS-3s during the first film's Kursk battle (two years before the IS-3 entered service), as well as undisguised T-55s, T-62s, and T-10s in some background shots.
  • Sink the Bismarck! used the actual aircraft carrier HMS Victorious to portray both itself and the Ark Royal. However, the ship had been modernized prior to filming to permit it to operate jet aircraft, leading to a zigzagged example of this trope.
  • Fire Birds, as with many of the television examples below, uses the ubiquitous MD 500 as the Big Bad's fictious "Scorpion" helicopter, as well as a SAAB 35 Draken as an unidentified enemy jet fighter. US Army helicopters were portrayed by type-correct aircraft.
  • In Downfall (2004), a troop of Hitler Youth are using a Soviet-made 85mm M1939 (52-K) air defense gun for the Battle of Berlin. It is likely supposed to represent the ubiquitous German 88mm Flak, but could also be justified that they are so short on weapons that they are being forced to utilize captured equipment, which, as mentioned above, is a rarity for this trope.

    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. Then in the one sequence, the same plane was "played" by footage 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.
  • In the Horatio Hornblower series, the 64-gun HMS Indefatigable is played by the 20-gun Grand Turk.
  • In SEAL Team, a UH-60 Blackhawk is used to play an Indian Air Force helicopter, owing to the unavailability of finding actual Indian helicopters in California where filming takes place.
  • In an episode of Sons of Guns, a customer wants to put together a quad-.50cal for demonstrations at air shows. Because this would cost $60,000 + ~$4-$5 per bullet, they instead build and mount four MG-42s, which costs only about $8,000 and $0.30 per bullet. (Flem notices the irony of using the enemy's weapon as a stand-in; cut to a Confession Cam scene where he apologizes to his WWII veteran grandfather.)

    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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Invoked by Warlord Games, the creators of the World War II wargame Bolt Action, which released a "Hollywood Tiger Tank" miniature modeled on the T34-based Tiger replicas used in Kelly's Heroes as a homage to the film. Otherwise averted with their historically accurate vehicle range and army lists.

    Real Life 
  • American-made aircraft stand in for enemy planes in air-to-air combat training programs such as 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 and A-4 Skyhawk light attack aircraf were used to play Soviet aircraft. Presently, US Navy aggressor squadrons operate F/A-18 Hornet fighters, with plans to move to the F/A-18F Super Hornet. US Air Force aggressor squadrons flew F-16s and F-15s, and are now setting up an F-35 aggressor squadron to simulate enemy stealth fighters.
    • 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. In a bit of dark military humor, their squadron is called the “Red Eagles.”
  • In addition to the Air Force, Navy and Marines operating aggressor units, the Private Military Contractors Draken International and Airborne Tactical Advantage Company also contract out as aggressors for pilot training. Draken has a few real MiGs among their fleet, and ATAC has 6 of the ex-Navy F-21 Kfirs. Both companies hire former US military fighter pilots (and occasionally Air National Guard pilots who are still also flying Air Force F-16s on weekends) to fly their jets.
  • 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), Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III.
  • 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.