Movie Review of Vanished Without a Trace (1993)

by JoHarrington

Based on a true story, twenty-six school children and their driver are kidnapped from the school bus, in Chowchilla, California.

On July 15th 1976, the Chowchilla school bus was returning home from a swimming expedition as part of the summer school activities.

Some children were dropped off at home as normal, but then, halfway through the route, the whole bus disappeared.

Frank 'Ed' Ray had been driving that bus for over two decades. He had a reputation with parents for being 'like clockwork' in his timing. Many of them knew that something was wrong the second that he was late.

In the back of the bus were twenty-six children aged between five and fourteen. Their disappearance caused a media storm and the largest man-hunt in Californian history. But the children and their driver had been buried alive in a container, 100 miles away from their home town.

Their escape was down to their own ingenuity.

Buy Vanished Without a Trace on DVD

The 1976 Chowchilla School Bus Kidnapping

This audacious crime actually did occur in a rural Californian town. The movie merely dramatizes those events.

The three kidnappers came from wealthy Californian families.

One eventually told a parole board that their motivation had purely been the ransom money, but for years none of them said why they had done it.

Fred Woods was the heir to a mining empire. A quarry belonging to his father was where his captives were buried.

His accomplices were two brothers, James and Richard Schoenfeld. They are depicted in the movie as not quite grasping that this scheme wasn't a joke, a game or some hypothetical situation, right up until the children were being taken.

The three men parked a van across a desolate road, down which they knew Ed Ray would drive the school bus.  When he stopped, they ran to the door wielding guns. Their faces were disguised beneath nylon pantyhose masks.

A second van had been concealed behind the first. Ed and the children were ordered into the back of the two vans at gunpoint.  They were then driven around for eleven hours in the suffocating heat, with neither comfort breaks nor water.

All of the captives suffered from the effects of heat. Some urinated in the backs of the vans, as there was nothing else that they could do.

Finally they were transported to a Woods family quarry, near to Livermore, in California, where a storage container had been buried. 

All twenty-six children and their driver were individually taken from the vans and ordered down a ladder into a hole in the ground. It led, through the roof, into the container.  The kidnappers then drove away and left them to it.

What their captives quickly realized was that the roof was not stable. It threatened to collapse, crushing them all.  It took a Herculean effort on the part of Ed Ray and some of the older children to get them out in time.

News Footage from the Chowchilla Kidnapping in 1976

This composite video shows original televised news and interviews from during the whole episode.

True Accounts of the Chowchilla Kidnapping

Buy these books to learn more about what happened; and the lasting psychological trauma suffered by the children involved.

Compelling and Chilling True Life Drama

However the movie was occasionally let down by some banal scripting.

It was gone midnight when I first switched on this DVD. I had meant to just watch the opening scenes to see if it was the sort of film that I'd like. 

It was nearly two am, when I finally crawled into bed after viewing it right to the closing credits, then looking up the reality on the internet.  So yes, it was a compelling movie. 

I cared about the people in it; and I wanted to know what happened to them, in movie-land and in life.

I'd not heard about the Chowchilla School Bus abductions before, so much of this story was being revealed to me for the first time.  The general tale is quite startling.  It was this which kept me watching and trying to work out what I'd have done, in each given situation.

However, the script wasn't brilliant, in my opinion.  There was a 'feel good' theme to it, which made me think that I was watching an episode of The Waltons at times. Though the crime creates the back-story, I wouldn't call Vanished Without a Trace a crime movie. It's about families and relationships more than anything.

It may be that I'm the wrong culture and gender, but the emotional 'hooks' failed somewhat. The back-story touched mostly upon Ed Ray's love for his wife and grand-children; and the fact that one of the teenagers, Tim, felt like he was a disappointment to his father.

There was also a lot of time afforded to the three kidnappers, to the extent that the viewer is left with sympathy for Rick Schoenfeld.

As for the children, they faded into a kind of amorphous blob of upset. The only real concern for them lies in the fact of their situation and their youth.  Even the very little, extremely cute one was rarely shown.

Only one stood out.  Ricardo left an indelible impression as a very brave kid, though I think that was more to do with the great acting than the script.

I was drawn into the movie and I am glad that I watched it. I just wish that I could have heard the voices of the children more.

Chowchilla Mouse Mat

Some of the Chowchilla Children's Stories

These are just a selection of incidents which could have been told, but weren't.
  • The five year old boy who was the last to be dropped off before the bus was hijacked. He became the center of police and FBI investigations; and they interviewed him all night long.
  • The six year old boy who stood up to his kidnappers, threatening them with harm, if they hurt his five year old sister.
  • The ten year old girl who didn't cry, even when she was hit in the stomach with a rifle butt, in order to frighten Ed Ray into co-operating.  She later held a flash-light for hours, allowing some of her peers illumination to dig themselves out of the container. She did this against the taunts of some boys, who told her that 'girls weren't allowed to work'.
  • The ten year old boy who worked in an enclosed space, in high heat, to open the hatch.
  • The ten year old blind boy who threw his shoes at the face of one of his kidnappers. Then later demanded to help with the digging, until he fainted in the heat.
  • The eleven year old boy who joked about his smelly shoes, as he handed them over to a kidnapper.
  • The eleven year old boy who shoveled dirt with his hands for hours, to clear a space under the escape hatch.
  • The twelve year old girl, who basically acted as a babysitter for twenty young children, in a desperate situation.
  • The fourteen year old boy who kept up everyone's morale, came up with an escape plan and worked hard to see it to fruition; then risked his own life to see the little ones safely out.

Also Known as 'They've Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping'

This movie is confusingly known under two titles, but both are the same.

Produced by ABC-TV, the film was originally broadcast as They've Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping.  The title was changed to Vanished Without a Trace for the DVD release for reasons that I've been unable to ascertain.

Young Jonathan Hernandez was nominated for a Young Artist Award for his portrayal of kidnap victim Ricardo Alanzo.

The main role of Ed Ray was played by Karl Malden (Streetcar Named Desire; On the Waterfront; Baby Doll; and, for television, The Streets of San Francisco.)  Amongst the rest of the cast was Julie Harris, who I think is one of the best actresses of her generation, as well as a scattering of other familiar faces.

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How Historically Accurate was the Movie?

I'm not an expert on the Chowchilla school bus abductions, but I did check some facts.

The major premise of the movie is precisely how it happened in real life.  The bus was stopped in that manner; and the driver and children were buried in a container within the grounds of a quarry.

However, the fine detail did leave a lot that was sacrificed for artistic license and narrative flow.

The first casualty was the time scale. In reality, Woods and the Schoenfeld brothers took between 9 and 18 months to plan 'the perfect crime'.  In the movie, this is contracted into a matter of weeks, making it all appear much more impulsive. The speed helped make Rick Schoenfeld seem like an innocent caught up in events, and as much a victim as those in the container.

As viewers, we were asked to focus upon Ed and Tim. Therefore they were the ones who facilitated the escape of the children.  While Ed was hailed as a hero upon their escape, he doesn't seem to have been so stoical in reality as in the movie.

The children told how, as soon as they heard the soil being shoveled over their roof, Ed commented that they were 'goners'. While he undoubtedly did a lot of the heavy lifting, which ensured their escape, it was largely the older teenagers who kept up morale.

I do not wish to undermine Ed Ray's character in any way here. By all reports, he was a hero. He did lead those children to safety. But I think that the movie afforded him some of the glory, which should rightly have gone to his charges.

For example, it was not Ed who reached up into the cavity above and found the batteries weighing down the hatch. That was two boys, aged 14 and 10, who inched it towards themselves. This was done in stifling heat, which had already seen another boy faint. The children worked for hours in it. They managed to hand the batteries down to Ed, who was standing on the floor.

Tim did not exist in reality.  He appears to represent a handful of older children, who really were amazingly resourceful in that place.  In all, about five of them worked in that hatch, leading to their eventual escape. 

That was also slightly altered in the movie.  In reality, a fourteen year old boy sneaked out and hid in bushes, fearful of being shot.  Then he dashed back to the hold and reported his survival. Ed handed the children up to him one by one. They each scampered into the bushes and cowered for safety.

Once all were out, Ed hunted down the quarry's patrol guards, who had no idea that they had been there. That is how the alarm was raised.  In the movie, the whole party stagger through the nearby roads, in the middle of the night, until a passing motorist is flagged down.

Timely Viewing of this Movie

Two major codas had occurred in the lead up to me watching Vanished Without a Trace.

I hadn't heard of the Chowchilla School Bus kidnapping until it twice hit the news in 2012. 

I watched this film on June 28th.  Just over a week previously, Richard 'Rick' Schoenfeld had been released from jail on parole.  He had served 36 years for his part in the abductions.  His brother James and friend Fred are still serving their time.

Also, on May 17th 2012, Ed Ray had died at Chowchilla Nursing Home, aged 91 years old.  During his final days, he was visited by many of the people who had been kidnapped with him on the school bus. 

They all remembered him fondly as a hero.

More Information about the Chowchilla Kidnapping

Crime Library: The Chowchilla Kidnapping
Ed Ray had stopped the school bus to see if the apparently broken-down white van needed help, and although it was a typically sultry Central California afternoon in the small town of Chowchilla, the peculiar man at the bus door was not an optical illusion caused by heat.

San Francisco Chronicle: Chowchilla Kidnapper Freed on Parole
One of three men who kidnapped 26 schoolchildren and their bus driver in 1976 from the Central Valley town of Chowchilla has been released on parole, authorities said Thursday.

San Francisco Chronicle: Chowchilla Kidnapping Bus Driver Frank Ray Dies
Fresno -- Frank Edward "Ed" Ray, a school bus driver who became a hero for helping 26 California students escape after three kidnappers buried them in a storage van in 1976, has died. He was 91.

The 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping occurred in Chowchilla, California, on July 15, 1976, when kidnappers abducted 26 children and their adult driver from their school bus and imprisoned them in a buried truck. The driver, Frank Edward "Ed" Ray, ...

Vanished Without a Trace Doesn't Pass the Bechdel Test

These are the trio of questions designed to evaluate the positive role of women in movies. The majority do not pass.

The first standard is whether there are two or more named women. Vanished Without a Trace includes a plethora of mothers, female kidnap victims and Ed Ray's wife, Odessa.  They are all named.

That's the only box that can be ticked in the Bechdel Test. The only time that I spotted two female characters talking to each other, it was about young love. 

It was a reassurance from a mother to her teenage daughter that Tim might ask her out again. Which comes full circle when Cindy and Tim hug at the end.

Every single act of real life heroism on the part of the kidnapped girls had been stripped away, ignored and/or given to a male character instead.  For example, Jodi Heffington actually held the flash-light into the hatch for the entire time it was being worked. In the movie, this role was given to Tim.

A lot more could have been made of Cindy's predicament. This character managed to maintain morale and care for twenty terrified children.

In reality, it was a twelve year old girl who did this (whose name I've been unfortunately unable to find). She dealt with two children suffering from asthma attacks; and several fainting with heat exhaustion (this is alluded to, but the male character of Ricardo acts on it, after advice from Ed).  She was also in charge of rationing the food and water. 

How many grown adults could have kept calm enough to do this under those circumstances?  It's only if you look very carefully, in the background of some scenes, that you can see Cindy doing all of this. Mostly she's just sitting there looking like a taller version of one of the little kids.

Three questions are asked of each movie. They are so simple that it would be harder to fail than pass. They examine the role of females in that film. Nearly half fail.
Updated: 03/19/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 08/04/2012

That's understandable. New babies aren't known for letting Mum sleep. <3 Mind you, perhaps it's just as well that you didn't pay attention to this at the time. It must have been a terrifying story for a parent, especially a new one!

dustytoes on 08/04/2012

I know I should remember this better and I'm sure I have seen the movie. I was a new mom at the time so maybe I was just too tired.. !

JoHarrington on 07/05/2012

I read somewhere that there is proportionately less crime now than there has ever been. But because it's reported, it makes it seem like there is.

Ragtimelil on 07/05/2012

Wow. I never heard about this either. Today we hear about everything! And we're right in the parents faces. It makes it sound like there's more crime now that there actually is.

JoHarrington on 07/01/2012

So you got to see it in the end? Win!

That's a shame about Amazon. They really need to sort out a depo there. :(

lobobrandon on 06/30/2012

Oh never crossed my mind - hadn't checked youtube. Btw my friend has it :) :) Amazon delivery is really bad here in India. eBay is fine though

JoHarrington on 06/30/2012

Is the Amazon link here not working?

YouTube is always a good bet for things like this.

lobobrandon on 06/30/2012

Couldn't find it anywhere :( Any ideas? Amazon is out of bounds eBay maybe - not tried that yet. Not even on torrents! lol

lobobrandon on 06/30/2012

I'm definitely going to watch this movie tomorrow as its a Sunday. Never heard of this story before, but I did hear about the movie never knew what it was until now.

JoHarrington on 06/30/2012

It must have been terrifying waiting for news. I was four that year.

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