“Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
So begins the exquisite Gettysburg Address, which took President Abraham Lincoln two minutes to deliver.
It takes Ken Burns 90 minutes to tell a lovely story about the speech, and it’s worth it.
“The Address,” Burns’ latest PBS documentary, premieres Tuesday, April 15 (check local listings), and features students at the Greenwood School in Putney, Vt.
The boarding school for 50 boys 11 to 17 years old specializes in teaching those with learning disabilities, including dyslexia and dysgraphia. The dedicated staff, though, knows these boys are capable of much, including memorizing the Gettysburg Address.
“They asked me as a neighbor to be a judge, and I wept,” says Burns, who lives nearby in New Hampshire. “I went back every year.”
Still, he hadn’t planned on a film. “I always just assumed someone else should do a cinema verite,” he tells Zap2it. Eventually, he embedded with the school for three months.
Burns captures the special beauty of teachers working to prove to the boys that just because they struggled to read and at other schools were told they were dumb, only meant this was more of a challenge.
They break down the sentences.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
The boys are hesitant, sometimes frustrated. This is not easy. Yet they persevere. Burns also shows them playing, eating, being rousted out of bed – just being kids. “I am the father of four daughters,” he says. While making this, “I gained 50 little sons.”
Burns also decided to do an outreach program, and he asked presidents and celebrities to learn the Gettysburg Address. Burns encourages everyone to learn it and to upload videos to http://www.learntheaddress.org.
“You see the kids escaping the special gravity of their situation,” Burns says. “We like to do things together, sing in church, sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ This has that element of community in it. The boys shore each other up.”
“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”