A Star Wars Sandcrawler Was Mistaken For A Real Military Vehicle During The Filming Of A New Hope

On September 1, 1969, Muammar Gaddafi took the capital of Libya, ousting the monarchy and establishing what would become the Libyan Arab Republic. Over the next several years, hundreds of former government officials, as well as the Libyan royal family, were brought to court by Gaddafi's new regime, each one of them charged with treason. Gaddafi eventually established a single political party, ignored all previous local tribal rulers, and effectively became a dictator, a position he would hold until his death in 2011. In October of that year, anti-Gaddafi militants asserted control and liberated the country.

Back in 1976, however, Libya was militarily tetchy, and Gaddafi's military dictatorship was firmly ensconced. There was also a lot of resentment between Libya and its neighboring countries after Gaddafi had tried to form a multi-nation alliance called the Arab Islamic Republic. Those plans, however, fell through spectacularly, and Gaddafi was furious for years thereafter. It was said that Gaddafi installed teams of militants to keep sentiment against the Tunisian president at a constant fever pitch. He was intensely aware of neighboring nations' military mobilization, afraid that Tunisia was attempting to assassinate him and remove him from power. 

In September of that year, according to a passage in Brian Jay Jones' 2017 biography "George Lucas: A Life," Gaddafi became alarmed by the appearance of a large, oblong, armored tank. Likely presumed to be a Tunisian war machine, the Libyan government sent agents into Tunisia to investigate.

Tunisia was making no war maneuvers, and they did not construct any such tank. As it so happens, the vehicle in question might be better known to pop culture enthusiasts as a Jawa Sandcrawler. 

That's no tank

As the film's fans likely know, September of 1976 was when filmmaker George Lucas was shooting scenes for his then-upcoming sci-fi movie "Star Wars" in the Tunisian desert. The same month that Lucas was filming, Libya had forcibly deported thousands of Tunisian workers back west. This sparked a number of rumors and reports that Libya was planning an all-out attack on Tunisia's government officials, with many assassinations said to have been planned. Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba was even hinted to be a possible target

In Jay's book, the author implies that the original shooting location of the Jawa Sandcrawler may have been a little too close to the Libyan border for Gaddafi's comfort, because the Libyan government "rushed inspectors across the border to ensure Lucas's crew wasn't constructing some newfangled military vehicle." A monstrous, rust-covered armored vehicle in the Tunisian desert likely looked awfully suspicious, and would have caused some already-hot military tension between Libya and Tunisia to heat up a tiny bit more. One can picture the exchange between Libyan military officials and Lucas, with the filmmaker explaining that the vehicle was merely fake, meant to be the home of shrouded desert imps. 

The Jawa Sandcrawler, of course, had no military capabilities. The vehicle's original design was conceived by Colin Cantwell, and was later redesigned by Ralph McQuarrie, one of the most famous of the Star Wars designers. It was modeled after NASA moon rovers from the time. There were smaller models, of course, used for effects shots, but the bottom half of outsize Sandcrawler — complete with tank treads — was also built to accommodate a notable scene where Luke Skywalker's uncle buys R2-D2 from the Jawas. 

The conversation between Lucas and the Libyan military was not recorded, so we can only speculate as to the tone of the conversation.

Gaddafi on film

Luckily, no shots were fired, and "Star Wars" did not start an actual war. Keep in mind, this was 1976, and no one yet knew what "Star Wars" was. There weren't yet billions of dollars in corporate money to kick around. There was, essentially, no one at Lucas' back. If the Libyan military blew up his sets, they would be gone. Also, a war would have begun.

Luckily for the filmmaker, "Star Wars" was a hit, inspiring a massive "Star Wars"-related tourism industry in Tunisia. Libya typically only sponsored propaganda films, and the cinema of Libya was paltry during the dictator's reign. International imports had to be dubbed into Arabic, and the content was heavily policed by Libyan arts officials. The censorship office continued to operate until 2010. (The history of cinema in Libya is worth further research.)

Gaddafi, meanwhile, was something of a movie buff. It hasn't been proven, but a rumor has long circulated that Gaddafi once set up a Libyan state TV network that kept his favorite movie playing on a loop 24 hours a day. That movie was said to have been W.D. Richter's kooky 1984 sci-fi flick "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension." Given some of the more outlandish behaviors of the dictator — his weirdness is well-documented — the rumor is entirely believable. Gaddafi's son, meanwhile, was eventually revealed to be an investor in a private equity firm that was funding American movies. Dictators love the cinema, provided it reinforces their worldview.

Gaddafi's opinion on "Star Wars" remains unknown.