Cinema as history: Movies to treasure forever

This year's entries to the US Library of Congress archives range from blockbusters to forgotten gems

When the historians of tomorrow delve into the archive for the crown jewels of 20th Century cinema, they will encounter Darth Vader announcing that he's Luke Skywalker's father, John Travolta throwing shapes in a white suit and a deadpan Leslie Nielsen answering the question: "Surely you can't be serious?" with the words: "I am serious... and don't call me Shirley."

The Empire Strikes Back, Saturday Night Fever and Airplane! are among 25 new additions to America's National Film Registry which were announced yesterday by the Library of Congress in Washington.

Original copies of each will now be kept safe for viewing by future generations in an archive of titles deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

As ever, the annual list of inductees includes an eclectic mixture of movies from different genres and eras of Hollywood. The oldest title, dating back to 1891, is Newark Athlete, a silent clip of a teenager swinging Indian clubs, a contemporary exercise aid. The most recent is 1996's Study of a River, an artistic portrayal of the Hudson River by experimental film-maker Peter Hutton.

Horror films are represented by The Exorcist, comedy by The Pink Panther and historical dramas by Spike Lee's biopic Malcolm X and Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman's Oscar-winning take on Watergate, All the President's Men.

In its annual announcement of new additions, the Library of Congress is anxious to stress that inclusion in the National Film Registry does not necessarily mean a work is being heralded as one of the best movies ever made. Instead, the archive is intended to preserve films which are deemed to have "artistic, historical, or cultural significance". A committee which includes director Martin Scorsese, film critic Leonard Maltin and actress Alfre Woodard, along with a selection of leading film industry figures and the Librarian of Congress James Billington, met in November to select 25 titles from more than 2,100 movies nominated by members of the public.

To merit consideration, a film must have been made more than a decade ago and given a theatrical release.

Aside from that, anything goes. "Somebody has to be the institutional memory of the country," Mr Billington said yesterday. "And that's pretty much what Congress has empowered its library to do and to be."

The Film Registry was established in 1989 and now contains 550 titles. A portion of each year's new crop of inductees inevitably tends to reflect news developments during the previous 12 months. For example, Leslie Neilsen, the star of Airplane! and Blake Edwards, the writer and director of The Pink Panther, are fresh in the public's memory after having both died recently.

Fans of The Empire Strikes Back are meanwhile loudly celebrating the film's 30th birthday and have long lobbied for the film to join Star Wars in the archive. The Exorcist, perhaps more vulgarly, benefited from a major PR push earlier this year when an extended version was released on Blu Ray.

But it is the forgotten gems which perhaps give the registry its real merit. John Huston's documentary Let There Be Light, filmed in 1946, finally gets the prominence it deserves, after initially being banned by the Pentagon for 35 years because of its unswerving depiction of traumatised war veterans. A Trip Down Market Street contains rare footage of San Francisco just before the 1906 earthquake which virtually destroyed the city.

"It's the ones that I didn't know about that thrill me the most," added Mr Billington. "That's where I really have a feeling of satisfaction that, by golly, this really is a creative country.

"Everybody with something to say can do it through moving pictures."