How Star Wars nearly sparked a real-life war between Tunisia and Libya

The conflict at the center of Star Wars between the evil Galactic Empire and the brave heroes of the Rebellion is one of the most famous in cinema history. Ever since A New Hope in 1977, audiences have been enthralled by Luke Skywalker’s efforts to bring peace to the galaxy… but did you know that the film almost caused a very real war?

The very first Star Wars movie, now called A New Hope, was filmed in the North African country of Tunisia, in 1976. After rejecting his own idea of setting the movie on a jungle world as it would make him “itchy,” director and creator George Lucas decided to start the story on a desert planet and searched the globe for a suitable location. Given Tatooine’s key role as the hiding place of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, getting it right was essential.

With its blazing sun and unspoiled sand dunes, the Tunisian desert was perfect, and principal photography began on March 22, 1976. The work immediately ran into problems as Lucas fell behind schedule thanks to malfunctioning props and equipment. To make matters worse, an ultra-rare rainstorm hit the desert production. As cinematographer Gilbert Taylor remembered, “you couldn’t really see where the land ended and the sky began. It was all a gray mess, and the robots were just a blur.”

Construction crews at the southwest town of Tozeur worked for eight weeks on the project. Eventually, Lucas and his team were able to film with the completed sets and vehicles for two weeks. Still, little went well. Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) couldn’t see out of his costume thanks to corrosion proofing and sand sent R2-D2 haywire. And then there was the threat of war…

When Star Wars Sandcrawlers were mistaken for military vehicles

Tunisia has two neighbors: Algeria to the West and Libya to the East; at the time, Libya was ruled by dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Relations between Gaddafi’s Libya and almost everyone else in the world were tense. The colonel was undoubtedly nervous following a failed coup against him just the year before. Libyan relations with Tunisia were particularly poor, with Libya expelling thousands of Tunisian workers the same month that principal photography on Star Wars began in the desert. The situation only worsened when Tunisia claimed to have uncovered a plot targeting high-ranking officials, and that Libya was involved. They even alleged that Gaddafi was plotting to assassinate then-Prime Minister Hadi Nouira.

And now we go back to Star Wars. You see, from a distance, Sandcrawlers can look quite like military vehicles…

We can only imagine the horror of Libyan border guards when they spotted this massive construct lumbering around the desert. Gaddafi was incensed by the reports, and demanded that Tunisia immediately end their provocations caused by the deployment of a massive military vehicle near the border, warning that war was inevitable if Tunisia did not comply and withdraw.

Not wanting to see his beloved new sets blown to smithereens nor spark a war, Lucas agreed to move the Sandcrawler to a less provocative location. He wrapped filming just a few days behind schedule and Star Wars went on to become a cultural touchstone, grossing $775.8 million and generating millions of dollars in tourism revenue in Tunisia for decades to come.

We can only pity the messenger who had to tell Colonel Gaddafi that the “enemy” had, in fact, been Jawas.

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