“The Swimmer” (1968)


The Swimmer is a 1968 art house film, starring the legendary Burt Lancaster. It’s also a film that’s overlooked and underrated. Based on a short story by John Cheever, it’s a classic that only recently has started to gain a cult following. Distribution company Grindhouse Releasing recently released this gem on DVD and Blue Ray as of 2014. and gave this film a much needed reintroduction to the American audience.

The film is the story of Ned Merrill, played by Lancaster. Merrill is a man who’s past is a complete mystery. The film opens up on Merrill using in the swimming pool of an upper class household. Merrill speaks to his neighbors, who have been recovering from a night of drinking and libations. The film establishes the fact the Merrill has ‘been away’ for quite some time, establishing the start of the character arc that will be the center of the film.

After learning several of his neighbors now have pools, Merrill decides to ‘swim’ home. Visiting each home, and swimming in their pools as he makes his return home. Upon the surface, it almost seems as a light hearted plot device. What’s more innocent than a person engaging in a harmless activity such as swimming? However, this film uses this motif to set up a story that’s surprisingly dark and at times, very morbid.

With each pool Merrill visits, more of his past is revealed to the viewer. We’re shown that this isn’t a character we should sympathize with, this is a person who is a selfish member of the upper class. At the same time, He’s also a representation of the mindset of many people from the time period. Throughout the film, Merrill is the anthesis of the ruling class, someone who finds pleasure in the simple things such as swimming rather than the creature comforts of a pampered lifestyle. Merrill is someone who consistently attempts to return to nature, and a natural form of life.

As his journey continues, the watering holes decrease in their quality. His travels take him from the posh stylings of the upper class, to the pools of the public and ‘common’ folk. This symbolizes the degeneration of his character, as more of his backstory is revealed to the audience. Finally making it home, Merrill finds his home empty and abandoned, a reflection of himself. Merrill’s arc has come full circle, an empty and hollow shell of a human being, much like his old home. The journey of degeneration reaches completion.

It;s hard to believe this film was overlooked for so long. It’s a dark tale that reflects a time period where simple pleasures were favored over the creature comforts of a consumerist society. I also firmly believe this is Burt Lancaster at his finest. A gem tat’s been overlooked for years, it’s fitting this film has surfaced recently for a whole new generation to enjoy.

One thought on ““The Swimmer” (1968)

  1. An overlooked gem indeed. It’s quite an odd and unique film which probably explains why it was critically neglected in its day. It does make an interesting double bill with The Graduate though. In that Dustin Hoffman’s character wastes the days of his materialistic suburban lifestyle away in the escapism of his swimming pool. Ned and the slice of closed-off affluent suburbia we see in The Swimmer are much the same. For Ned the pools are also a mental space in which he flees, from the world around him and from his own past. As you mention he begins the film as a character quite different from all his neighbours, he’s childlike in his appreciation of everything and especially the nature around him. Then it’s as if his past slowly returns to haunt him the more people he meets. The only exception being the little boy, presumably because he had no prior connection to Ned’s past, and as a result the boy is the only one who takes his swimming idea at face value!

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