The Swimmer: A Retrospective Review

“Nothing’s turned out the way I thought it would. When I was a kid I used to believe in things.”

Ned Merrill

The Swimmer (1968) is a U.S. drama film starring Burt Lancaster as Ned Merrill, a man who one day decides to swim home across the county via a series of ten swimming pools, which lead to his house. On the journey, small snippets of Ned’s life are revealed piece by piece, which ultimately divulge the truth that this is a broken man who has squandered his privilege, popularity and wealth and become consumed with pain and regret. To quote the actress Illeana Douglas, “How could a movie be so enjoyable and yet so disturbing at the same time?”

Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer
Burt Lancaster plays Ned Merill in The Swimmer (1968)

Based on a short story of the same name written by John Cheever, The Swimmer is a very unique and interesting tale. On the surface it is a cautionary fable about a man who has let his hedonistic hopes and dreams cloud his understanding of reality, to the point where he is living in denial, oblivious to the wreckage that his ageing life has become. Beyond this, the film is an allegory for the failed American dream, a meditation on toxic masculinity, and perhaps most importantly, an introspective examination of our own personal mythologies and the fact that we often convince ourselves that we are something special, noble and unique, but in actuality, we are far from these things.

Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer
Ned is revealed to be something of a ladies man.

At the very beginning of the picture, Ned emerges from a wooded area like a wild man, a fabled Iron John, healthy, dominant and moving with grace and purpose. He is welcomed by friends who own the grounds and are surprised by Ned’s unannounced arrival. As they languish by their pool, nursing hangovers and taking a hair of the dog, they invite Ned to join them and spend the rest of the day in their company, enjoying the beautiful sunshine. Ned gets other ideas and we soon realise that this is a man on a mission. He states that he has figured out a way to get home along a series of swimming pools that stretch across the county, as he reels off a list of the owners by memory. The series of pools that he later refers to as a “gleaming sapphire river” lay ahead of him at the beginning of the odyssey. This is the morning, bright, fresh and spring-like. This is the beginning of Ned’s dream.

Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer
Burt Lancaster and Janet Landgard in The Swimmer.

Having bemused his friends with his plans to “swim home”, Ned sets off along his chosen path and makes his way to each pool. Along the way we encounter the owners of the pools and get an idea of their relationship to Ned. At first, the people he meets are welcoming, almost sycophantic in their willingness to entertain Ned and his crazy plan to swim their pools and move on. We start to get a picture of Ned as a former Adonis and playboy who has a keen eye for the ladies. Most of his male contemporaries have grown old gracefully and sport white hair and a beer gut, juxtaposed to Ned who still looks great in his swimming trunks and appears to have the energy of a young stallion. The dream-like quality of the cinematography and editing techniques are complimented by a whimsical score by Marvin Hamlisch, giving the film a very nostalgic style that feels like the central character may indeed be a fantasist, unconscious elsewhere, conjuring up everything that is transpiring in his own mind while he sleeps like a rock.

Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer
Ned tries to woo Julianne in a dream-like sequence from The Swimmer.

By the time he reaches the fourth pool, Ned encounters his daughter’s former babysitter, a young 20 year old called Julianne (Janet Landgard). After convincing her to join him on his journey, the film becomes very oneiric with slow motion sequences of the two frolicking about en route to the next pool. Julianne confesses that she had a teenage crush on Ned and he seems to think that the young woman still has. When she rejects his romantic advances and flees, the dream begins to turn into a nightmare for Ned. The closer he gets to home, the more things begin to turn on him, the weather becomes colder, his body begins to ache and the people he encounters are no longer welcoming or glad to see him, in fact quite the opposite. The summery atmosphere begins to turn more autumnal.

Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer
The harsh reality of old age catches up with Ned Merrill in The Swimmer.

After being abandoned by Julianne and made to feel unwelcome at several more pools, Ned’s aspirations begin to sprout seeds of doubt and confusion. He does not understand why he is being treated with animosity by some of the people he encounters and seems to be lost in the midst of his own adventure. As the audience, we are beginning to see that Ned has a past and one which he is somehow failing to remember. Is he suffering from memory loss? Is he having a mid-life crisis? Whatever the explanation, we begin to realise all is not well with this complex and enigmatic character.

Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer
Ned and his young companion.

At the seventh pool, Ned befriends a young boy whose pool is empty, but nevertheless the two swim it together anyway, pretending to make their way across by miming each stroke. Here we get a sense of Ned’s more likable and relatable side. He is not a bad guy through and through. He talks to the youngster and offers some life advice, noting the importance of being the master of your own destiny, or “the captain of your own soul” as he puts it. One could also view this meeting as an older middle-aged man having a conversation with his former self, offering cautionary advice as well as reflecting upon the things that have gone awry.

Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer
Janice Rule and Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer.

By the time he gets to the final pool, things really have begun to fall apart for poor Ned. He arrives at a property occupied by a woman who we soon gather is Ned’s former lover (Janice Rule). Ned attempts to romance her, helping himself to a drink and talking about past events as if they were a lot more recent than they actually were. Becoming frustrated with him and visibly upset, his former mistress angrily repels him and kicks him out, much to Ned’s surprise and confusion. By now the temperature has dropped and as Ned nears the end of his journey, winter is now upon him, metaphorically and literally. He arrives at his home to find it abandoned, empty and overgrown with vines and weeds. He breaks down at the door and is left whimpering pathetically on the steps of his prior residence.

Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer
Ned is confronted with the reality of modern life.

This is an impressive and underrated film that is very unique and introspective. A box office flop upon its release in the late sixties, it is now rightly hailed as a cult classic by some, and one of Burt Lancaster’s greatest performances. The central character is both relatable and deplorable; at times he is a wide eyed dreamer with bags of positivity and enthusiasm, at others he is a self-deluded philanderer, narcissistic and oblivious to the pain he has caused to others.

The Swimmer forces us to look at ourselves as we travel through life and really examine who we think we are against who we pretend to be. The worst lies we tell are the ones we tell to ourselves and without grounding in reality and developing empathy for those around us, we too often find ourselves hopping from pool to pool, swimming away from our perceived troubles but in actual fact, diving head long towards the crushing revelations of actuality. Highly recommended viewing for anyone who loves a cinematic curiosity and fans of American New Wave cinema that emerged from this progressive period.

That’s our review of The Swimmer!

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Greg Fisher
Greg is a digital content creator, photographer, filmmaker and writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @theflyingartist