The Enduring Magic of Banff in Alberta's Film Industry
Updated: Nov 10, 2022
By Mary Graham, Lillian Agnes Jones Scholar, Whyte Museum, 2021
I met the stubborn, meticulous, persnickety, iconic, loveable Nick (Nicholas) Morant on my first day as a Lillian Agnes Jones scholar at the Whyte Museum Archives in the winter of 2022, while researching the enduring importance of Banff to Alberta’s film industry.
The CPR had a long history of involvement in the Alberta film industry, even being given script approval on many films before 1960. So when they were enlisted to help director Arthur Hiller with the train stunt scenes for Silver Streak, they put their legendary photographer Nick Morant in charge of ensuring contractual compliance.
Hiller and the producers discovered that while Nick was an annoying stickler for details who didn’t let them get away with anything not stipulated in the contract, he was meticulous and knew trains better than anyone. He knew the mountains and understood the complexities of timing shots for the railway and stopping speeding trains because he had done so many exacting shots for the CPR, all with perfect staging and composition in precise detail and the best light. He conveyed those marvelous abilities to stage the train shots for their movie, including the still legendary runaway sequence of a passenger train racing through Calgary at breakneck speed. It was done in one take.
Morant had a series of strange little notes and drawings in his minuscule five by three inch, ever-present notebook, entitled “Property of Nick Morant. 20th Century. C. P. RLWY”. One page from
that notebook appears to be the decapitation of the villain’s head as two trains pass each other. This appears in one scene in the runaway train sequence at the end of the movie, which was shot at the Alyth Train Yards in Calgary. If you look closely you see it: the first touch point, the head going off, and the blurry mess that is left. It's simple, brilliant, and complete in its austere orchestration of movie magic - and horrifying to watch in the movie.
Nick did such a splendid job coordinating the impressive and legendary train shots for Silver Streak that when he was hired as a train consultant for the first Superman movie two years later, the contract stipulated many of the same conditions and terms of his duties. The CPR leased the train to the movie’s producers for $52,000, and six cars were brought in from across Canada. They were painted silver at the Ogden Rail Yards in Calgary just before filming. Nick oversaw it all. He also orchestrated the scene where a young Clark Kent outruns the train. They filmed the scene on tracks near Barons, Alberta, which was also the location of Clark Kent's movie high school between August 6 and 8,1977. Extra footage of the fast-moving train was taken on a run down to southern Alberta the night before they went to Barons.
Soon after, Terrence Malick hired Nick for Days of Heaven. Malick was shooting scenes at odd times to capture the famous Alberta “magic hour” light; those brief, brilliant moments between day and dusk. The Hollywood technicians and producers were uncomfortable with that and relations were often strained. Matters weren’t helped when Nick wouldn’t let them move the CPR train back a couple of feet on the Lethbridge viaduct because he wanted proof of adequate insurance. He says he stood his ground.
“They threatened and cajoled me and took me out to dinner. Come on,
we’re just going to run it down the track a little way, you know. I
said I was very sorry but I just couldn’t allow them to do that.” 1
Once the insurance matter was settled, filming continued, and a couple of days later,
Nick drove down to southern Alberta from Banff with the Hollywood crew. At the end of
the day, he was told they had no room for him in the car for the ride back. Nick says it
was payback time.
“Fine, I told them. I had my CPR radio so all I had to do was call the
station and they could easily send a car down to get me. Then an
impasse developed.” 2
A Calgary cameraman, an IATSE union member, declared none of his group would leave unless Nick came as well. Nick gleefully waited until they finally let him get in the car.
The legendary Swiss Guides of Banff were instrumental to filmmaking in the very early and busy days of filmmaking in the Canadian Rockies, passing the torch to Banff’s “Mountain Man” Bruno Engler in the late 1950s. While trying to orchestrate the filming of an avalanche for the Academy Award-winning Walt Disney nature documentary, White Wilderness (1958), Engler says one evening he happened upon Rudolph Aemmer and Eduard Fuez, two of the most important guides to early film history. They were at the isolated alpine cabin near the Plain of Six Glaciers after waiting all day for an avalanche on the Lower Victoria Glacier.
He was cold, tired, and discouraged. The three mountain legends stayed up all night discussing where Engler should hold his “vigil for the avalanche” the next day. They decided that a different spot on the glacier would yield the best results and Engler headed off in the morning with new vigor. An avalanche finally came roaring down that day, but he was on a much-needed toilet break and had to scramble back to his camera with his pants down. It also didn’t help that a pair of skiers happened to pass by at the same time. He got mostly the cloud of snow dust left in its wake. His vigil did eventually end and he did get an avalanche shot for the movie.
Engler worked on many films shot in and around the Canadian Rockies in his long career in film, beginning as a mountain consultant with The Far Country (1954), which was filmed in the summer of 1953. He warned director Anthony Mann that an avalanche would happen around 3 o’clock in the afternoon while they were filming the cast trekking up the massive Athabasca Glacier, part of the Columbia Icefield, with pack horses.
Mann chose to ignore him. Bad choice. Massive chunks of snow and rock
came roaring down the glacier around that time and Engler saved one of the film’s
stars from certain death. She later called Engler “The God of the Glacier” in media
interviews. She said the cast and crew bowed to him and respected everything he
said after the incident.
Engler recounts that 20 years later, while working on Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) at Morley, he heard the crew talking around the fire one night about a legendary Banff mountain guide who saved Anthony Mann and his cast from an avalanche in 1953. “I didn’t tell them it was me”, said Engler.
About Mary Graham
Mary Graham is a writer, documentary journalist, and film historian, with a degree in Arts, and graduate degrees in Journalism and Marine Law. She has appeared as a feature film specialist at CBC Radio and ARTE, the European Culture Channel. Her book A Stunning Backdrop: Alberta in the Movies, 1917-1960 was published in October of 2022. Her research at the Whyte Archives as a Lillian Agnes Jones Fellow will contribute to a second book on filmmaking in Alberta, after 1960.
In 2001, the Peter and Catharine Whyte Foundation/Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies received a bequest from the estate of Lillian Agnes Jones. Lillian Agnes Jones (1909 – 2000) was a cousin to Whyte Museum founder, Peter Whyte. Her mother, Elizabeth Jane, was Dave White’s sister. She and her husband Clifford Jones moved to Calgary in 1900. Their daughter, Lillian, was educated at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and the University of Washington State, graduating in 1952 with a degree in Library Science. She was Head Librarian for Cal Standard Oil Company in Calgary and was a member of the University Women’s Club.
The Lillian Agnes Jones Fellowship was established “for study and research related to the history of Western Canada.” Initially administered as a graduate student scholarship through the University of Calgary, it was realigned in 2019 to be administered through the Whyte Museum, with an open call for scholarly residency proposals across Canada.
Learn more about the work of past and present Lillian Agnes Jones Fellowship recipients here.
Image 1: Nicholas Morant making a face. [ca. 1945-1955]. Photograph by Peter Whyte. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 3 / PA - 92. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
Image 2: "Bruno Engler and actor Corinne Calvet on the Athabasca Glacier while filming The Far Country, Jasper National Park, Alberta.", [ca. 1953], (CU1209933) by Calgary Albertan. Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.
Bruno Engler fonds. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
Engler, Bruno; Sandford, Robert, ed., A Mountain Life, Alpine Club of Canada, Canmore, Alberta, 1996.
Nick Morant fonds. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.