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The Swimmer (1968)

There’s No Water In The Pool: Swimming With Burt Lancaster

by Neil Fox
(illustrations by David Litchfield)

There is a river right there. But you can’t sit by it without a walk. The chance to grab five minutes by it in the middle of the day, to sit—to contemplate—is hard.

I grabbed five sunny minutes today, not by the river, but in a courtyard at work. Sporadic trees and greenery nearby. And the groggy thought came into my head, the same groggy thought I have had so frequently recently.

My life would be so much simpler and better if all I did was swim, every day.

You can’t swim in the part of the River Ouse that flows past my current workplace, but apparently there are parts where swimming is allowed. I love swimming. It’s one of my favourite things to do. Always has been. However, it was only really recently—a month ago, in fact—that I realised the specificity of that love.

It was about 11 a.m. on a Friday morning. I was walking across Fistral Beach in Newquay, Cornwall. I was with my wife, my dog, and a dear friend we were staying with. I was fresh and salty from a morning swim. I’d spent time (I can’t recall how long) swimming in the sea, being battered by the waves, bobbing along them, swimming along them, swimming out, gliding back. Sun-kissed and smiling. I wanted to carry that energy with me as I returned to the stressful urban world, and then it hit me. I don’t need to be by the sea. I just need to swim in the wild, in natural water. In nature.

Frank Perry’s film The Swimmer opens with scenes of deer, geese, hare and owls as the camera manoeuvres through forests, glades and tracks down a flowing river. From this idyllic, tranquil scene Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerges, striding, resplendent in navy blue swimming trunks. He is beaming, infallible. He has been swimming, and he wants to continue to swim. He soon realises that he can swim home, visualising before him a route of friends’ pools that he could traverse safely back.

There’s something about swimming that just makes me feel better, something about being in water, especially outside. I will likely spend twice as long in an outdoor spa as I will an indoor one. Swimming in natural water beats both those options.

I have clung, endlessly, to a dream that one day I will live near the sea, so I can swim naturally much more often; since this dream has yet to become a reality, I have finally taken the plunge and committed myself to wild swimming. Well, not immediately. But it starts soon.

Burt, with his iconic smile and ridiculous body for a 55-year-old, is captivating in this film. His Ned embraces the simplicity of the sky and water as his hungover friends, at the first house he visits, avert their eyes. He rejects their materialism—quite literally, as his bronzed body is covered by the most minimal amount of material possible, and at one point he even discards this gesture of clothing. It’s a rejection we later understand he has learned the hard way. En route between the pools, he runs barefoot, racing a horse at one point with a gleeful grin.

He wants to swim home. They all ask him: why?

Is this the great Western question? There seems to be an incessant need to clarify reasoning. There is no why sometimes. More and more I feel myself unable, unwilling, to justify my life choices. I don’t know why. I just know I want to, I think I will feel good, I need to. The constant whys in this film remind me of Phillipe Petit in Man On Wire, with his playful disdain for those who begged him to give reasons for his wire walking.

Ned believes that if he can just swim home, everything will be okay—as we slowly realise, things are not okay for him. As he gets closer to home the film gets stranger and darker. Burt picks up mysterious injuries and gets increasingly colder, and we learn that he is not only flawed, but also possibly mean: a philanderer, neglectful with his family, usurped at work, brash and arrogant, the recipient of an almighty fall from grace. Ned smiles as he declares:

“I’m a very special human being, noble and splendid.”

We know by now that he isn’t. He is confused and broken. And all he wants is to swim this brokenness away, but the world won’t leave him be. He must be confronted with the consequences of his life: the nearer he gets to home, the more clear it becomes that he was once surrounded by people he has now let down, including a woman who loved him and whom he treated abominably.

The film never tells us explicitly what has happened to Ned, because it’s not really about that.

It’s about how we are corrupted as we age. We cannot retain the simple pleasures easily. We add stuff to our nothing and think it helps. Sometimes, once we have forsaken the sacred things in life, we can never get them back. Maybe, I think as I watch, Ned would find peace if he swam away from home. If he plotted a new route. But that’s not possible, is it? We aren’t built that way. We are compelled to try to reclaim youth and glory instead of embracing the now. The idea Ned can just swim to happiness is absurd to us, but not to him. The other characters can’t understand him:

“Good Christ, Ned, will you ever grow up?”

That’s the problem. He did. He got a good job, a big house, a decent wife, two kids. And he couldn’t keep any of them. He belongs back in the woods with the deer.

Now, I’m not saying I’m Ned Merrill. And I am not saying I want to go live in the woods with the deer in my swimming trunks. But increasingly I have found myself, over the course of the last couple of years, trying to regress to a simple code, a silent (or at least quieter) inner voice. To engage with the natural world. My desire for this sort of quietness started with my wife’s dream of living by the sea; it gained pace when Bailey, our beloved dog, arrived; and it crystallised in the ocean off the coast of Cornwall.

I feel like if I could swim outside more, then I could get through this thing called life. I picked up and fondly pondered purchasing Leanne Shapton’s “Swimming Studies” just days before the Newquay revelation. I’ve long denied this integral part of my life. I’ve ignored it, like Ned did. It was too late for Ned. He couldn’t swim away from his troubles, from his pain, from his mistakes—and likely I can’t, either.

But that’s not why I want to swim. That’s not why I love swimming. I love being in the water. In the water you can’t think, you feel. You have to stay afloat. You have to work to enjoy it. Sand beneath your feet. Water around. Sky above. For too long I have ignored this.

As a determined, ailing, stubborn Ned declares,

“I’ve got to swim home.”

“For the love of God, why?”

“I’ve just got to.”

What happens to him, on his return home? It’s heartbreaking to watch. The film is aggressively downbeat as it progresses, forcing Ned to come out of this blissful swimming haze and face what he has done. The final images see him on land, collapsed against the ruins of his former life, as the rain beats down. Water is still present, but his relationship to it is no longer a happy one.

It’s the final unusual element of a very unusual film. A huge Hollywood star spends an entire film in a pair of trunks, swimming, stopping off for cryptic conversations that build with sinister hints, resulting in scathing revelations, and ends with the star finally flailing against his old material life—a life that has become reclaimed by nature.

It’s a powerful fable and it resonates with me in myriad ways. What of the choices I have made? What of this new choice? Am I really considering this? Everyone I have told about it laughs, or quizzes, or laughs quizzically. There is concern for my safety, questions about my swimming ability and queries about the geography and equipment involved. Sometimes I wonder if, like Ned, I am swimming to ignore the real issues. Swimming, unprepared for dangerous waters.

I am aware that it’s not a cure-all, that life on land will still have to be addressed. I have watched the film a number of times, and truly believe I can heed its warnings and engage positively with the elemental beauty involved.

There’s a famous Billy Wilder saying: Call yourself a writer, and you are a writer.

I always took that as providing a feeling of security for whoever utters it—an inner voice that can drive you on through the tests that come. I won’t get to undertake this new adventure until the spring, when the water is warmer. But just stating my desire out loud, just feeling that it is now a part of my life, has helped me these past weeks. I feel different, I feel better. I can’t wait for it. The thought of it alone has liberated me.

I am a swimmer.

Neil Fox likes to swim. When on land he tumbls here.

David Litchfield can’t swim very well, and frankly, he is nervous about Neil’s new venture. His amazing illustrations can be found here.

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