Ken Burns film looks at school’s use of Lincoln’s essential speech

Abraham Lincoln’s words continue to inspire.

It’s been 150 years since the president made his famous Gettysburg Address, but those words, whether spoken by the five living presidents or five young boys at the Greenwood School, are still stirring.

The school and its link to Lincoln’s memorable speech are the subject of documentarian Ken Burn s’ latest project, “The Address.”

The 90-minute film goes inside the small boarding school in Putney, Vt., where 50 boys ages 11-17, all with learning differences, are challenged each year to memorize and publicly recite “the address.”

“This would be a difficult task for anyone, but a minefield of difficulties for these kids,” Burns (“The Civil War,” “ Jazz,” “Huey Long”) said from Walpole, N.H. “But they do it and it’s an incredibly inspiring story.”

Burns was introduced to the Greenwood School when he judged its Gettysburg Address contest 10 years ago.

“I went over, and just wept when I saw these boys struggling to perform the Gettysburg Address, just to memorize it,” Burns said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, somebody should make a film about this.’”

A year-and-a-half before the 150th anniversary of the speech, which had been part of the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., during the Civil War, Burns and company began work on “The Address.”

From early November 2012 to early 2013, the film crew shadowed the students, their teachers and their tutors as they tackled those 271 words. Some boys have dyslexia, some dysgraphia, others attention deficit disorder. All, in varying degrees, found the task of learning the two-minute speech daunting.

Meanwhile, Burns was learning, also.

“I learned about perseverence, hard work, overcoming adversity, helping each other,” Burns said. “It was so stunning and so powerful.”

During the editing process for “The Address,” another branch of the project sprouted.

“We thought we would reach out to the entire country and challenge them to memorize or recite the Gettysburg Address. We engaged a lot of notables across the spectrum — all five living presidents, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steven Spielberg, Uma Thurman, Taylor Swift, Usher, a whole wide range of Americans,” Burns said. “Subsequently we’ve gotten a lot of others to volunteer. The U.S. soccer team did a mashup, the Mayo Clinic did a mashup, and then there were thousands of ‘ordinary folks.’ A father and daughter took a trip to Gettysburg and recited it in unison on the rocks — just really, really wonderful stories.”

The uploads to learntheaddress.org will continue up to the show’s airdate.

“We live in a climate where everything is so polarized, that it’s really nice to do something together. It’s like singing in church, or going to the ball park and singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” the filmmaker said.

“The Gettysburg Address, just as it unites these boys struggling to do it in this film, it also binds us together.”

The different voices, intonations and pace make each delivery unique, Burns agreed, but aside from the words, there’s always a common thread in each individual interpretation.

“What’s so extraordinary is that across the country, young, old, white, black, male, female, rich, poor, there seems to be this humbleness with regard to these words.

“It’s arguably the greatest speech in American history. It’s a beautiful piece of presidential poetry.”