Most of the time when you see an M1 Abrams in a movie, it’s not the real deal. These are highly expensive pieces of machinery with one tank requiring an entire logistics train just to remain operational, with about as much training time for an F-16 for the operators. And despite being among the most deadly and one of the hardest nuts to crack, they break down just by breathing on them. So although they have been making more cameos since 2009, mostly if you see one they are props.
Usually Australian Centurion vismod, but sometimes a British Chieftain. Most NATO tanks share a certain amount of DNA, so the makeup is easy to do. The first appearance was in Courage Under Fire. Sadly, this is a shit debut. This is a Clinton-era movie, but incase that does’t spell out the obvious, Meg Ryan is in this movie. Meg Ryan. 1996. War movie. C’mon, it can’t wait to start preaching. I’ve only seen this movie once, I vaguely recall the M1 Unit is merely a cameo. I wouldn’t advise watching, even to find out. A gap of seven years passed untill a mockup appeared in Cradle 2 The Grave (2003). Then another in Jarhead (2005). The first real M1A2 to appear in a movie was in War of the Worlds (2005). Well, either it was the real tank or incredible CGI. I wonder if the Iraq War and the fact that quite a few were lost/damaged had any influence on finally leasing the real unit out, i.e. the schematics cat was more or less let out of the proverbial bag by that point.
The most recent appearance seems to have been in Season 1 of The Walking Dead, 2010. This one was neither the real thing, CGI nor the Centurion mockup. The one the Sheriff takes solace in here is actually a British Chieftain with some visual mods. This is the weakest looking mockup that has been used. Although Red Dawn (2012) if I recall may be more recent with a Centurion mod, even though it was shot in 2009.
Elsewhere, in 2008, several M1A2’s can be seen in a logistical column in the TV series Generation Kill. Those were CGI. If I recall, the glimpse was kept brief and distorted with sand and dust in order to mask the limited capabilities/production. A real M1A2, only the third (possible) real appearance if you count a glimpse of one in District 9 (2009) can be seen in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009). Trouble is, that would mean actually having to watch that ghastly shit. The Centurion mod is also in Cloverfield. Another crapmovie.
The trouble with seeing an Abrams in movies is that she is a shy beast. It’s always a cameo. And that’s a pity. I mean, in Generation Kill (2008), why didn’t we see the M1 in action? While they were turkey shoots, some of the most fierce urban tank battles since WW2 took place during the invasion of Iraq. There was a cancelled movie about this by the way, Thunder Run, about the M1’s headlong ram into Baghdad in 2003 – they cancelled it. Fuck. We really needed a Band of Brothers deal for that, fuck political sensitivities.
Anyway, among the best appearances, I think, could be the appearance of a sole M1A2 in the TV series Jericho (2006). Which had a pretty good first season. Here, the tank becomes a on/off character for the show in itself. Some guy gets to keep it in his barn, now come on, who wouldn’t want that responsibility? Locals in a town struggling to survive in post-apocalypse America take possession of a fully-running USMC M1A2 (Centurion mod). That’ll even the odds with potential enemies. And it did.