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Writers often play fast and loose when it comes to vehicles. They are usually Just Plane Wrong, and use artistic license when it comes to ships. This applies to armoured vehicles as much as anything else, either getting details wrong or using stand-ins.
One of the most common mistakes is to treat all armoured vehicles as tanks. Armored cars, self-propelled guns, armored personnel carriers and several other types of armored fighting vehicles can be and frequently are misidentified as tanks, just as every warship is a 'battleship' to most civilians. In real life all of these vehicle types and more are commonly lumped together under the catch-all term "Armored Fighting Vehicles" which is usually contracted to just 'armor' or, if you want to be all snooty about it, AFV (no relation).
In most war films, particularly those set in the Second World War, historical tanks and armored vehicles will be replaced by either modern or more widely available contemporary vehicles that have either been painted in appropriate (or at least stereotypical) color schemes or given cosmetic makeovers to disguise their foreign or anachronistic features. The amount of effort that goes into this varies rather wildly.
There are many very good reasons for this. Antique armored vehicles are actually quite scarce. Tanks have never been particularly attractive on the surplus market since they are huge, heavy, fuel-guzzling lumps of steel useful for little else beyond waging war or making war movies. Surviving contemporary vehicles in operating condition can be hard to find and incredibly expensive to hire, transport and maintain for filming, in part because tanks tend to be just so flipping big and in part because military vehicle collectors are often understandably leery of renting their rare and often irreplaceable treasures to people who are just itching to crash them, burn them, blow them up or drive them off cliffs. Many surplus vehicles are historical artifacts belonging to museums and likewise cannot be used recklessly or destroyed. Some of these vehicles may belong to countries you are technically at war with. And if you're filming a wartime propaganda movie at least half of these vehicles are going to belong to the enemy.
And many of these vehicles --particularly those from the defeated Axis nations-- were never exactly common in the first place and survivors may not even exist: fewer than 500 King Tiger tanks were produced (as opposed to 47,000 M4 Shermans) and many contemporary Italian or Japanese vehicles were produced in even smaller numbers. (Even being Backed by the Pentagon won't help if all of the vehicles you need are scattered in small pieces across remote Pacific islands or buried in the Russian steppe.) Next, as the Sherman production numbers above suggest, filmmakers naturally took advantage of the huge glut of cheap surplus U.S. Army equipment in the immediate postwar period. Finally most contemporary armoured fighting vehicles have either been scrapped or met their end on the battlefield. Even Hollywood cannot destroy a tank twice.
Similarly to its sister tropes this is often out of practicality more than anything else, especially if you're not Backed by the Pentagon and just don't want reality to get in the way of Tank Goodness. Just find something vaguely tank-like, add a coat of stereotypical (but historically inaccurate) panzer gray paint and a few crosses and voila! instant Tiger. And--let's be honest here--aside from a few vehicle enthusiasts and history buffs, most viewers wouldn't even notice (or care), anyway. If it has tracks and a gun, it's a tank as far as they are concerned and it doesn't violate their Willing Suspension of Disbelief. To those who know what to look for, it can quite jarringly break it.
There are several ways to get around this trope. One is to use surplus or 'backup tanks' from modern armies such as Russia or Spain: Most T-34 and Sherman tanks used in WWII films were not actually from the war but modernized vehicles from the immediate postwar period. Another is to take a more common modern or contemporary vehicle and give it a cosmetic makeover to give it the appearance of the correct historic vehicle; sometimes these conversions can be quite sophisticated with only a few detail differences such as turret location and suspension design that only dedicated military vehicle enthusiasts would likely notice (These folk are often called "rivet counters" in the trade and are usually considered to be very annoying people). Finally, there are always models of both the real and the Computer Generated variety, which naturally come with their own sorts of problems.
Feel free to post aversions here, as they're rather rare and always a pleasure to see.
- An odd example occurs in Martian Successor Nadesico when the Mecha pilots battle alien-possessed WWII German Tiger tanks from an abandoned tank factory in Kursk, Russia.
- Another example occurs in 009-1: Tigers again, this time in an unspecified "eastern block" country.
- The "German" tanks featured in Patton were quite obviously postwar, American-made Spanish-owned tanks, which amusingly were M48 Pattons. The American tanks were postwar M47 Pattons as well.
- In The Big Red One, Italian and German armored fighting vehicles are portrayed by Israeli "Super Shermans" (much of the movie was filmed in Israel).
- In The Beast of War the eponymous beast is in fact a Ti-67; a T-54/55 captured by Israel from Egypt or Syria, refitted with new armament, seats, optics et al., and pressed into Israeli service.
- The German Tiger tanks in Battle of the Bulge (1965) were actually American M47 Pattons (colour-coded grey, when German tanks of this period were dark yellow with camoflage), and the American M4 Shermans were actually M24 Chaffee light tanks (in camoflage, when American tanks of this period were olive drab). On the bright side, this did make the US tanks look appropriately smaller than the German ones, as well as using World War II era Chaffees.
- Only two Chaffees saw battle in December 1944.
- The remake of the Second World War film Die Brücke used Swiss Panzer 68s as stand-ins for the M4 Shermans. While the tanks look suitably "old", they do not look like Shermans, and Shermans also didn´t have multiple countermeasure pods and other, "modern" stuff attached to them. What's even more ridiculous: later in the movie, an M4 Sherman can be seen. Why the heck didn't they use it in the first place?
- Saving Private Ryan had 2/3 scale mock-ups of Tiger tanks based on the chassis of Soviet T-55s and almost genuine (see below) Marder III tank destroyers (confusingly referred to as "panzers" by the Americans). A 20mm flak gun deserves mention as well; often encountered during the war, never before seen in a movie. The half-tracks were mostly Czechoslovakian copies of the German Sdkf 250 built after the war and the assault guns were based on post-war British FV432 chassis. The vehicles representing Marder IIIs were modified Czechoslovakian Panzer 38(t)s (one of them a Swedish licence-built model). This was in fact the vehicle that the Marder III was based on in the first place, for bonus recursive accuracy points. While the Marders may seem tactically out-of-place (poorly-armoured tank destroyers have no business taking on infantry units in urban settings, after all), tank destroyers and artillery vehicles were occasionally deployed in the infantry support role when more conventional tanks or dedicated Sturmgeschutz armoured vehicles were not available. All said, it is reasonably justifiable, especially considering that the Heer units just behind the beaches had an absolute parking lot of old armoured vehicles and a Marder (of any type) would be one of the BETTER ones available.
- Red Dawn had the mistake in-movie where one of the cast called a ZSU-23-4 "Shilka" Self-Propelled-Anti-Aircraft-Gun a tank. Granted these were typical high school kids with no formal military knowledge. The film did have rather accurate T-72 mock-ups, to the extent that (allegedly) the CIA demanded to know where the film-makers got them.
- ~Kelly's Heroes~, filmed in Yugoslavia, used Russian T-34s that had been modified to look like German Tigers (there are only 6 Tigers in existence and only one is in serviceable condition). The Tiger replicas were already available since they'd been made for an earlier government sponsored historical film. The most obvious giveaway is the location of the turret, which is much too far forward for a real Tiger, and the suspension, which lacks the Tiger's characteristic overlapping roadwheels. The scale is also off. The movie also used Yugoslav army Shermans since they still had them in reserve in 1970.
- A Bridge Too Far used mock-up Panzers based on modern German Leopard tanks with what appears to be plates of cardboard painted grey with Iron Crosses on the side attached to the vehicles. Possibly also due in part to the scene being filmed on location, and anyone over the age of 40 would probably be less than pleased at seeing accurately mocked-up German tanks rolling through the streets. Allied vehicles, on the other hand, were reasonably accurate. Backed by the Pentagon, in this case the Dutch Army.
- Averted in Lord of War. Not only were the tanks in one scene all real, but they were all sold right after filming completed. The scene actually had to be rushed because the arms dealer they were borrowing the tanks from had an unexpected buyer.
- 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.
- Overlapping with Just Plane Wrong, the American military vehicles in Mars Attacks (Film) are all Russian and European. This is because the film was denied backing by the real-life military, apparently because they weren't happy that the Indian Love Call song was depicted as being more effective at defeating the Martians than the military.
- Famously averted in the Steven Spielberg comedy 1941 which used an accurate full-scale replica of an M3 medium tank built on the chassis of another one of the huge family of M3/M4 based vehicles. Just another reason why this movie went so spectacularly over budget.
- Children of Men's famous cityfighting scene features an obsolete Chieftain tank, presumably because the film-makers couldn't get their hands on a state-of-the-art Challenger II.
- Though given the state of the UK and the world in general, it's not inconceivable that a few Chieftains would be reactivated.
- Averted in Finnish war film Tali-Ihantala 1944. The tanks used on filming the movie were the actual individual tanks which had participated in the real life battle 1944 and been stored in Parola Tank Museum, Finland, and restored back to working condition by volunteer enthusiasts.
- The Pentagon Wars, which is a humorous retrospective on the development and the Bradley AFV (as well as all the waste, corruption and sillyness that went on in the Pentagon during it) was evidently not Backed by the Pentagon - while the schematics seem to correspond, the actual "Bradleys" being tested throughout the movie look more like Soviet BT Rs, and were most likely just 8-wheel flatbed trailers with a cardboard structure on top.
- In the "real close, but not quite" we have the classic "starring Bogart" Sahara. "Lulubelle" is an actual M3 tank, which is appropriate to the period (the Gazala battles), and several of the American training crews did end up getting into battle (on the "wrong" side of Africa). The problem is, it's a Lee (the US Army version), not a Grant (British version, the turret design's the give away). The Brits did get Lee's by Lend-Lease later, but not during those battles.
- To Hell and Back, the semi-true autobiography of Audie Murphy's WW 2 service, has him jump into a burning M4 Sherman to fire its .50 caliber machine gun at German troops, in the action that earned him the Medal of Honor. He actually jumped into an M10 Tank Destroyer, although the two are very similar (The M10 Wolverine Tank Destroyer was based on the Sherman.)
- The movie Stripes presents us with a scene set behind the Iron Curtain, in which a "Russian" tank menaces some of the heroes. It is clearly an M60 series tank with a few visual mods tacked on.
- Averted in Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, which used real, Yugoslav-made, T-34s in several scenes. Although the models used would be slighty anarchronistic for the 1943 the film is set in.
- Hogan's Heroes. The episode "One Army at a Time" used an American M7 Priest self-propelled artillery vehicle painted up in German colors to represent a generic German AFV. It was a good choice because the Priest is an obscure enough vehicle that most of the viewing public (particularly back when the show first came out) wouldn't know what it really was... The same Priest had, however, previously tried to stand in for a Tiger tank in an earlier episode called "Hold That Tiger", which wasn't such a good choice as the two look nothing alike...
- Subverted in Space: Above and Beyond. In the episode Pearly, the Marines of the 58th Reconnaissance Squadron, AKA "The Wildcards", are in danger of being overrun by enemy forces when they take shelter inside an Awesome Personnel Carrier. Only thing is, the driver of the vehicle keeps insisting that it is in fact a tank. Aside from that, by all appearances, Pearly should probably be considered an APC, since it's relatively roomy inside with space for a squad of Marines to ride around in it.
- This is even funnier because in this show's setting, "Tank" is a highly derogatory term used to describe In Vitro humans, genetically engineered and grown in factories to be cheap labor and soldiers for an earlier war the humans fought. Two of the Wildcards, including their commander, Lieutenant Colonel TC McQueen, are In Vitros.
- One Adam-12 episode had a scene where the boys pulled over an M8 armored car only to discover that it was duly registered and thus perfectly legal to drive on the street. However, both the boys and the owner, who presumably should have known better, kept referring it as a "tank" throughout the entire scene.
- The "German" halftracks in The Rat Patrol were all American halftracks in German markings.
- A Challenger I showed up in Doctor Who as part of the forces who shoot down the Racnoss mothership. While such modern vehicles are rare to see in fictional media - especially science-fiction - Challengers, as main battle tanks, are not exactly optimised for anti-aircraft duties.
- The Walking Dead features a (surprisingly clean, all things considered - shouldn't it be covered in bits of zombie?) British Chieftain standing in for an abandoned M1 Abrams.
- Averted major-ly in the miniseries Band of Brothers. The Allied tanks were genuine M4A1 Shermans and A27 Cromwells, the armored cars were genuine M8 Greyhounds, the halftracks were genuine M5s. On the German side, they used the Czech-built, German-designed halftracks and the replica Marders and Tigers from Saving Private Ryan, along with very convincing replica Jadgpanthers and Sturmgeschutz IIIs built on British FV432 APC chassis.
- Likewise averted in the follow-on miniseries The Pacific, though in this case the reasonably accurate Japanese tanks had to be created using CGI due to a lack of surviving originals.
- Company of Heroes has the M26 Pershing tank available to American forces in Normandy circa June 1944. Historically, it did not see action until February 1945, and then in tiny numbers for field testing. The Expansion Pack Opposing Fronts features a Bergetiger Recovery Vehicle, of which exactly one was ever used in real life. This has lead to theories that it was used for something completely different.
- Battlefield Play4Free has the so-called "light tanks", which are actually LAV-25 & BTR-90 APCs.
- The first Command and Conquer used upgunned M2 Bradley IFVs as the Brotherhood of Nod's "Light tank". Renegade changed them into small (and quite low-profile) tanks.
- The Israeli Merkava is a tank and not an APC, despite its rear door, which is there to allow the tank to be evacuated or resupplied under fire. The tank does have the potential to carry troops in an emergency but the ammunition magazine has to be emptied to make room for them. This is also true of the Merkava IV Tankbulance, which is a tank equipped to be an ambulance. Since it still retains its original armament it isn't protected by the Geneva conventions, and can therefore be engaged by the enemy. Admittedly, its thick armour and a 120mm cannon don't exactly mean it's a sitting duck...
- On a similar note, the Israeli Achzarit is an APC despite having started life as a T-55 tank. Confused yet?
- Likewise for the Namer, which is an APC built on a Merkava chassis, making it the best-armored APC in the world yet also one of the fastest. This comes at the price of having a relatively small troop capacity of only nine despite weighing in at a massive 60 tons (five times larger than the M113, which carries eleven troops). While its name translates as "leopard", it's also an acronym (in Hebrew, of course): "Nagmash" Merkava", or "APC Merkava".
- The British CVR(T) series of reconnaissance vehicles. Though if one defines "tank" as "tracked armoured vehicle with a turret-mounted gun and no space for infantry" then the Scorpion and Scimitar fit the bill, designed primarily for the reconnaissance role or not. Reconnaissance has always been the primary role of light tanks anyway.
- The Stryker - being an eight-wheeled gun platform - isn't too likely to get confused for a tank, but the same probably couldn't be said for the M2/M3 Bradley and Linebacker IFV/CFVs. They're armor plated, have a gun turret, tracks, but their primary function is carrying troops into battle and giving them fire support in combat. Tanks to their speed and their ability to carry and launch anti-tank missiles, they do make for a respectable threat to enemy tanks on the battlefield. Though originally it was worried that their aluminum armor would make them too vulnerable to enemy fire, even after some steel plating was added on the sides, in practice the only Bradleys destroyed in combat have been at the hands of American M1 Abrams tanks.
- The Russian BMP line of amphibious infantry fighting vehicles often get mistaken for tanks because of the tank-like shape and size of their turrets and main guns.
- News sources, and particularly The BBC, have a tendency to mistakenly regard any armoured vehicle (especially those with tracks) as 'a tank', which can lead to confusing headlines about the Iraq conflict and so forth.
- In Germany, every tracked and armored vehicle is actually and correctly refered to as a Panzer, as "Panzer" simply being German for "armour" (in Dutch, it's spelled "Pantser", which somehow manages to look less scary - especially if you're British). The Gepard Flakpanzer (Anti-Aircraft-Tank, based on Leopard 1 chassis), Marder 2A5 Schützenpanzer (ICV), Biber Brückenlegepanzer (Brigde-layer, based on Leopard 1 Chassis), Leopard 2A6 Kampfpanzer (MBT), Panzerhaubitze 2000 (Self-Propelled Howitzer). Even nontracked Vehicles like the Spürpanzer Fuchs and Spähpanzer Luchs (6x6 and 8x8 wheeled, lightly armored vehicles) are referred to as such, although not classifying as tanks at all. Correct German term for "tank" specifically would be "Panzerkampfwagen", and "Panzer" is a loose equivalent to English "AFV" (armoured fighting vehicle).
- According to documentary evidence some units of the German Wehrmacht preferred to use captured US Sherman tanks as tank recovery vehicles. They may have lacked the gun power and armor protection of Panthers and Tigers but they were a lot more reliable and had a much better power to weight ratio making them better tow vehicles. There was also an instance during the Battle of the Bulge where the Germans used Panthers disguised as US M10 Tank Destroyers, creating a Real Life Tanks, But No Tanks situation.
- It has to be said that the Bovington tank museum in Britain appears to be more sympathetic to the needs of film and TV than most. While, understandably, it will not loan its only Tiger - the only running model left in the world - a recent BBC documentary/drama using film sequences incorporated a running Cromwell tank from 1944, in exactly the correct Normandy context, which could only have come from one place. This was accompanied by other running examples of WW 2 British hardware, such as Universal Carriers, all in the context of depicting and illustrating the often-overlooked British contribution to the Normandy landings.
- When you get right down to it, none of the early tanks--the British Mark I & IV, the French Schneider & St. Chamond, or the German A7V Sturmpanzerwagen--were tanks, as they all lacked turrets and had guns with limited traverse. The first recognisable tank was the French Renault light tank, which featured a rotating turret and modern shape.
- Yes and no - they weren't tanks because they weren't water tanks, but at the time a rotating turret and "modern shape" had nothing at all to do with the definition of a tank in a military sense. The original tanks were just called "tanks" to hide their real nature. Besides, if a turret were really part of the definition, that would leave the Swedish S-Tank (Strv 103) MBT in a bit of a spot...
- The first troper to describe Audie Murphy's famous stand in the Draft Dodging article (under subversions) placed him in a burning tank instead of on an M10 tank destroyer - a tank-like vehicle with thin armor, an open turret, and a big gun. That said, the definition of "tank destroyer" gets complicated. The British had two classifications for tanks: "Infantry" and "Cruiser." Infantry tanks were heavily-armored yet slow and, as they were mainly intended for infantry support, only rarely equipped with armor-piercing ammunition. Cruiser tanks were fast, lightly armed vehicles intended to engage and destroy enemy armor. The US used the same distinctions but called them "tanks" and "tank destroyers" respectively. Gradually, as armor got heavier and engines got better, both were merged into the single "main battle tank" category that dominates the battlefield to this day. Categorisation gets even more complicated when Soviet and German tank destroyers are factored in. Vehicles such as the SU-85 and Jagdpanther (based on the T-34 and Panther respectively) were simply turretless and sometimes up-armoured versions of an existing tank chassis, mounting a limited-traverse gun in the hull that was typically bigger than the original tank could carry.