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Reflections on ‘The Swimmer’

Marking the Fiftieth Anniversary of 'The Swimmer,' the Forgotten Hollywood Classic Starring Burt Lancaster

The Swimmer is one of those films that defies genre. More a parable or moral tale than a conventional drama, at a time when Hollywood was facing fierce and growing competition, the film is a bold attempt at the kind of boundary breaking narratives explored by television, Hollywood’s increasingly popular little cousin, while managing to utilise the scale and maturity only possible within the medium of a full-length cinema release.

Now, in a period where notions around masculinity and male behavior are being questioned and new possibilities are being explored, it’s interesting to remind ourselves of one of the first films to address these issues in modern times.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the films original release. Written and directed by Eleanor Perry (screenplay adaptation) and her husband Frank Perry (director), it’s one of those forgotten gems, a film that owes as much to the French New Wave and it’s inherently critical view of dominant American culture as it does to the Hollywood system within which it was made.

Against the social backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, the emerging Black Panther Movement, the student demonstrations and Feminist Movement of the time, the film works like one of those pop art pieces by Andy Warhol or Jasper Johns - on the surface it appears to affirm and celebrate American culture, but look long enough and you’ll see a seething rage within. Here, as with for example Jean-Luc Goddard's seminal debut Breathless, (À Bout De Soufflé, 1960) the role of the classic hero is replaced by the anti-hero, a flawed, conflicted and morally ambivalent, but nonetheless epic figure.

Like many of those pop art paintings, colour plays a huge role in this film. Using Technicolor, the film visual opulence of the film captures the optimistic mood and aspirations of a period that began with the post war boom.

And therein lies the film's inherent tension. The Swimmer is a shiny, glossy, beautifully shot study of one man's emotional collapse as we follow its star, Burt Lancaster, as he traverses the swimming pools of his rich neighbors and friends—"I’m swimming home," he says. By this late point in his career, Hollywood legend Lancaster’s superstar status, his still statuesque physique and famous winning smile were to many as iconic and as all-American as the stars and strips or a Coca Cola bottle.

As the film progresses we’re allowed to glimpse not just the swimmer's internal conflict but also the cultural malaise that has helped trigger it. Set in a sunny Connecticut suburb, on the surface this is a vision of the American Dream come true—symbolized by the possession of one's own private swimming pool at the end of the house. But from the outset you sense an oppressive air hanging over this idyllic landscape.

As we follow Lancaster, wearing only swimming trunks and a fragile version of his famous smile, it becomes evident that there’s a kind of moral and financial price tag that its inhabitants have to pay in order to access this life of luxury—one which our hero has somehow failed to meet.

It’s an epic picaresque journey played out in one single day, beginning all bright and bold and dissolving into dark despair as Lancaster is inevitably forced to confront his own personal tragedy.

Sure, made fifty years ago the film is in many ways incredibly dated. However, as our hero retraces his past and attempts to reassemble fragments of his life, The Swimmer, seen against the current backdrop of President Donald Trump, ‘Make America Great Again’, and the Me Too Movement, still retains an undeniable ability to hold a mirror to our own. 

Jason J

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Reflections on ‘The Swimmer’
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