Maybe you’re considering spending your vacation in Banff. Maybe you’ve already booked. Whatever applies to you, the four documentaries I reviewed below may be of extra interest to you. They are all available online for free.
Looking forward to your next vacation can be almost as exciting as the vacation itself. That’s why I reviewed the four documentaries below, so you get to know what to expect. Want the verdict quickly? Scroll to the conclusion at the end.
Table of Contents
Canada’s National Parks (Go Traveler)
Year of Release: 2004
This production focuses on both Banff and Jasper National Parks. It begins with Banff, and at the 25.53-minute mark, the part about Jasper starts.
My first impression is that the video feels a bit dated, which doesn’t come as a surprise as it’s from 2004. Another thing that becomes evident rather quickly is that this is more of a marketing tool than a Canadian Rockies documentary.
The intention to make it come across as such is there. Naturalist Peter Duck serves as the narrator, historian Jonathan Hanna presents facts from the park’s history, and so does author/historian Bob Sandford.
However, the abundance of staged scenes of happy people being catered to makes the production come across as not sincere.
An excellent example of this is the footage of the Rocky Mountaineer train. It’s too much of a PR narrative to convince the viewer. Only exacerbated by the narrator saying things like “the service on board the Rocky Mountaineer is only surpassed by the scenery”.
And then there’s also Holly J. Wood, director PR of the Banff Springs at the time. She’s allowed to tell how amazing the hotel is. Subsequently, the narrator goes: “The suites are grand and beautifully furnished.” About the hotel at Lake Louise: “Resembles a storybook castle”.
Eh, no. I guess he has never been to Europe.
On the upside, the production shows some nice black-and-white pictures and videos of the park’s early years. There’s also more recent footage of the town of Banff, Moraine Lake, the Banff Gondola, Lake Minnewanka (without mentioning the submerged town of Minnewanka Landing, but okay) and an item about skiing in the park.
Furthermore, there’s footage of native culture, rock climbing and mountain biking (Narrator: “Some say the sport can be your ticket to the fountain of youth”).
At the end of the section about Banff, we’re treated to pretty footage of Vermilion Lakes. But the narrator manages to spoil it yet again when he talks about the sunset at the lakes: “A postcard-perfect way to top off the day”.
Steam, Schemes and National Dreams
Year of Release: 1984
Watch it here: https://www.nfb.ca/film/steam_schemes_national_dreams/
This documentary, presented by Parks Canada, is rather interesting. It alternates between a short movie telling the story of how the park came about and recent scenes showing what it has become. You got to take “recent” with a grain of salt, as this documentary was released in 1984.
The production starts with a narrator impersonating one of the three railway workers who stumbled upon a hot spring on Sulphur Mountain in 1883. This discovery sparked the development of what we now know as Banff National Park.
It shows the struggles of the railway workers trying to defend their interests around the hot spring and the devious schemes of others seeking to exploit the area.
While the “movie part” of the documentary is not exactly what you’d expect of the average documentary, it gives a nice idea about how the park came about. It also makes it quite entertaining, despite the overacting at times.
A second narrator tells about the park’s development over the years and provides more general information on Banff National Park. The documentary also shows some footage of the town of Banff in the 1980s. While it’s dated, it gives you a nice view of what the town looked like back then.
Meanwhile, black-and-white photos and footage show how Banff has developed over the decades. Overall, it’s a “different” documentary that’s entertaining and interesting to watch.
The Ultimate Wildlife of the Canadian Rockies
Year of Release: 2021
This documentary differs from the other three because it’s entirely about the wildlife in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Banff resident of many years, Les McDonald, filmed scenes in Banff and Jasper National Parks and Kananaskis Country.
It resulted in stunning footage of the parks’ wildlife, like grey wolves, mountain goats, marmots, chipmunks, bears, trout, ravens, elk, great blue herons and big horn sheep.
Unsurprisingly, the footage he shot of black and grizzly bears is the most impressive. Especially the footage where he films a bear cub from up close.
McDonald speaks with great respect about the animals he filmed and ensures that we understand he always remained at a distance when shooting his footage.
“We didn’t get too close, but we managed to get some spectacular shots”, he says. And during the bear cub’s close-up: “Again, I need to remind anyone who is watching this video that I have a very long lens on my camera.”
You gotta love his narration. It’s honest and conveys his love for the wild animals of the Rockies.
The documentary does contain shots from some well-known locations like Castle Mountain, Moraine Lake, and Mount Edith Cavell, but most of the time, you will see animal territory where no tourist dares to go.
At times the footage comes across a bit haphazard, switching back and forth between locations and seasons as McDonald is probably eager to show off his footage.
But all in all, this is a beautiful, sincere, interesting and captivating documentary of someone who really knows the area.
Mountains in Motion: The Canadian Rockies
Year of Release: 2013
This multi-prize-winning short film by Doug Urquhart and Paul Zizka stands out because most footage is made through time-lapse photography. The production – co-sponsored by Parks Canada – was shot in Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho national parks and Kananaskis Country.
The fifteen-minute documentary starts with a narrator impersonating an explorer of the Rockies in 1912. Wearing clothing of the time, he tells about his adventure and the astounding beauty surrounding him. Supported by dramatic music, this persona tries to sell us on the magic of the Canadian Rockies.
We see beautiful time-lapse shots of Peyto Lake, from frozen in winter to thawed in summer. The northern lights pass by in a gorgeous flurry of green, blue, pink and red skies, while the Rockies underneath remain inert.
Similarly, we see footage of Johnston Canyon, Vermilion Lakes, Mount Rundle and Moraine Lake in Banff, and the Takakkaw Falls in Yoho. You’ll see the Rockies as you’ve never seen them before.
We see the camera in the foreground slowly zoom out while the background passes by at great speed. The calm music by Michael Wynne fits the shots very well.
Every now and the narrator intervenes to tell his story. And that’s the only downside to this short documentary.
While it adds to the excitement of the grandiose landscapes that pass by, it comes across as a bit forced. As if the makers are seeking to justify the making of this impressive and exciting production. They don’t need to. The spectacular footage speaks for itself.
After watching all four documentaries, it’s hard to choose the best one because they’re all so different. Choosing the worst is easier. That’s “Canada’s National Parks (Go Traveler)”.
It’s too much of a PR vehicle luring tourists to Banff. But at the same time, the documentary shows most aspects of what the park has to offer of all four, making it worth watching.
If you want stunning and extraordinary images, “Mountains in Motion: The Canadian Rockies” is the one to watch.
Regarding Banff’s wildlife, you’ll have to watch “The Ultimate Wildlife of the Canadian Rockies” as it’s the only documentary on this list that covers this topic. Though you won’t learn or see anything about the famous Banff attractions.
The most interesting, however, is the movie “slash” documentary “Steam, Schemes and National Dreams”. The combination of a movie, old black-and-white footage and photos and scenes from Banff in the 1980s make this entertaining and interesting to watch.
I’d say: Just watch them all. It’ll take you less than two hours.