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The Filming of Star Wars Almost Started a Real-Life War in North Africa

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away…there was a massive misunderstanding!

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  • Muammar Gaddafi and Hotel Sidi Driss, a Tunisian building used for filming.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In 1975, an enormous tracked vehicle was spotted in the desert along the Libyan-Tunisian border. Its size and structure alarmed the Libyan armed forces under the leadership of Muammar Gaddafi, who had just finished consolidating his power after a 1969 coup.

Believing the Tunisian armed forces were preparing to launch an invasion to unseat him, he issued a warning: end the military buildup and remove the strange tank weapon or he would invade and remove it for them. He had no idea it was part of an obscure movie that had recently begun filming in the deserts of Tunisia: Star Wars.

Libya shares a relatively small border with Tunisia in the northeast of the country, but life in Libya wasn’t entirely stable. An army officer named Muammar Gaddafi had overthrown Libya’s Western-backed King Idris I in 1969, ejected Western powers, and established a government of Islamic Socialism, based on shariah law.

He was essentially a dictator, instituting a series of cultural revolutions and repressive controls over the Libyan people while taking control of the military. By the time he’d noticed the massive tank vehicle in neighboring Tunisia, he had just fought off an internal coup attempt and was as paranoid as ever.

Habib Bourguiba, a dictator, led Tunisia, complete with a personality cult. He’d met with Gaddafi in planning to merge the two countries under one Arab government, but the deal fell through, which led to some mixed feelings between the two dictators. Soon after, Bourguiba received complete control over Tunisia’s armed forces.

Gaddafi responded by funding anti-Bourgiba militants in Tunisia, hoping to unseat the president. So when he saw the massive new tank under construction in the deserts near his border, he believed there was retribution for his action coming soon. He had no idea the vehicle was actually a Sandcrawler, the signature desert transportation for the Jawa people.

Of course, he had no idea: Sandcrawlers and Jawas aren’t real. It was part of the production of a new movie from filmmaker George Lucas called Star Wars. The area in which the Sandcrawler was being constructed, a real-life border area called Naftah, was the fictional setting of the Jundland Wastes on the planet Tatooine, and the home of the movie’s hero, Luke Skywalker.

Anyone who’s watched a behind-the-scenes documentary or seen photos of a movie’s production knows that epic films can have epic camps. A movie on that scale requires living quarters, food preparation areas, and storage facilities, not to mention the sets for the film itself. There’s probably more, but the point is that all Qaddafi saw was a sprawling camp around a massive tracked vehicle.

Gaddafi was already paranoid, belligerent and mistrustful of Tunisia, so seeing this site just miles from the border with Libya led him to threaten Tunisia. He told the Tunisian government that the “military buildup” near his border would be removed, or a conflict between the two nations would erupt. The simple explanation that the camp was a movie set did not suffice for the paranoid dictator in Libya.

When Lucas was told about Gaddafi’s threat, he decided that discretion would be the better part of valor. Despite the cost, he moved the entire production to a new location inside Tunisia, far from the Libyan border, as Gaddafi demanded, averting a real-life war and bringing us the “Star Wars” we know and love.