Judge Diane Wild didn't try to escape even once during her review of this dated comedy series.
Our reviews of Fan Favorites: The Best of Hogan's Heroes (published April 11th, 2012), Hogan's Heroes: The Complete Second Season (published November 9th, 2005), and Hogan's Heroes: The Complete Third Season (published May 31st, 2006) are also available.
"Tell me Schultz, which colonel is running this camp—Hogan, or me? I sometimes wonder."—Colonel Klink
It's one of the stranger premises for a comedy, but I find it hard to understand how anyone could take Hogan's Heroes seriously enough to find offensive. When I was a child, laughing at it in syndicated reruns, I thought the show took place in a Nazi concentration camp—I didn't understand the distinction between that and a POW camp run by the Luftwaffe. To some people, it will make no difference; there are detractors who find the show tasteless and I can't argue with them. But I'm not one of them. War and Nazis may not be funny, though the best humor often arises from serious situations. But in the case of this show, there's nothing serious about the fictional situation, and absolutely no realism to tie it in to historic events. If you're going to complain that the plots of Hogan's Heroes are ludicrously implausible and give a false portrait of war, you might as well point out that Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and Mr. Ed lack gritty realism.
I am, however, one of those people who finds that time has a way of changing my tastes in comedy. In 2002, TV Guide named Hogan's Heroes one of the five worst television shows of all time. I suspect much of that censure was because of the premise, but rewatching it so many years after my initial exposure, I did find it more tired and tiresome than I remembered. It's nowhere near my bottom five, but it's not close to the top, either.
Facts of the Case
In this series that ran on CBS from 1965-1971 (longer than the U.S. involvement in WWII), American Colonel Robert Hogan (Bob Crane) leads a motley gang in a German prisoner of war camp, including French Corporal Louis LeBeau (Robert Clary), British Corporal Peter Newkirk (Richard Dawson), and Americans Sergeant Kinchloe (Ivan Dixon) and Sergeant Carter (Larry Hovis). Though they make half-hearted efforts to escape, their undercover mission is to coordinate key escapes. Hogan describes them as a "traveller's aid society," an outfitting and embarkation point for POWs escaping from the Third Reich.
Vain Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer) relies on bumbling Sergeant Schultz (John Banner) to keep an eye on the men, who are far cleverer than their German overseers. Frightened of any sign of incompetence that could have them sent to active duty on the Russian front, the Germans come across as lovable idiots rather than menacing Nazis. "No one escapes from Stalag 13" is the catchphrase of the clueless Klink, while Schultz keeps mum on the stream of escapees in order to preserve his job ("I see nothing…nothing!").
Ignore the premise, and Hogan's Heroes is a completely conventional sitcom. The forced laughs come from ridiculous situations, and there's a fairly standard formula to each episode, which offer few surprises. The individual disc cases provide episode-by-episode summaries, but I can give you an all-purpose one here: Hogan and his men will outwit the witless Germans by helping someone escape through an intricate, laughably bad plan. Klink will remain completely oblivious, while Schultz will know too much and say too little to his commander. It's predictable, but consistent. If you like one episode, you'll enjoy them all.
The pilot sets up the premise nicely by focusing on the introduction of an informer who doesn't fool the prisoners for a second. Hogan gives him a tour of their operation—bringing the audience along on a demonstration of the fantastical set-up the show will operate under—all as part of a plot to discredit the stool pigeon.
The charm of Hogan's Heroes is Hogan himself, played with impish insouciance by Bob Crane. He's a familiar caricature of the unflappable, swaggering American air force man. Hogan is noble, wily, and cool, and a romantic figure in his jaunty leather jacket and cap. Every woman he encounters is instantly smitten—and for a males-only POW camp, a fair number of the fairer sex are introduced into the plotlines.
LeBeau is another national stereotype as the French chef who's never seen without his beret, and the other men are drawn with similarly broad strokes. This is not a subtle character study. This is situational comedy, pure and simple, with most situations turning the roles of jailer and prisoner on their head.
Crane and Klemperer were both nominated for multiple Emmys, and play off each other beautifully. Hogan and his men use misdirection as their weapon. Klink never quite understands the manipulation he is subjected to, as the prisoners prey on Klink's ego and fear of his superiors. In the logic of the show, Hogan and Klink have a symbiotic relationship—Klink needs Hogan's control over the men to create the illusion that no one escapes, and therefore the illusion that Klink has perfect control over his charges. And as Hogan points out, if the prisoners didn't try to escape now and then, the Germans wouldn't need Klink to watch them. Hogan of course needs Klink's inept leadership to operate his extensive escape network, so some plots involve Hogan's attempts to keep Klink in his post and hide his ineptitude from his Gestapo superiors.
The behind-the-scenes stories of Hogan's Heroes are compelling, too. Besides the morbid story of Bob Crane's murder, featured in the film Auto Focus, both Klemperer and Banner were Jews who left Europe in the shadows of WWII, and Clary was interned in a concentration camp as a child. On a happier note, there are good opportunities for playing spot the guest star, with small roles for Victor French of Little House on the Prairie and William Christopher of M*A*S*H fame, among others.
Sometimes accused of borrowing heavily from Stalag 17 and The Great Escape, which were reasonably fresh in viewers' minds at the time, Hogan's Heroes has lost its satirical context today. I can't say I ever felt that context in my early days as a pre-sentient being watching the show with my older brother, but the repetitive plots and forced laughs got old for me today as a reasonably sentient being who is not a huge fan of conventional sitcoms. For many, however, the familiarity and clockwork humor will be hugely appealing.
Considering the age of the original, the DVD transfer is more than decent. There is some grain and damage to the source material evident, but the pilot shows great black and white contrast and the color episodes are generally vibrant, though there are instances of washed-out sections. The mono sound is a bit thin, with uneven sound levels, but it's clear with a minimum of background noise.
The episode structure has the opening credits and theme song, followed by the first scenes, followed by a shorter section of credits accompanied by the theme again. I dare you to get that damnably catchy song out of your head after even one episode. There are chapter stops, but no episode-specific menus, so it's a bit of Russian roulette where you'll end up when you press the chapter skip button on your remote.
There's an odd glitch in some copies of this 5-disc collection, which comes in a slim-line set: discs one and two are mislabeled and in the wrong cases. I was puzzled at how the first episode of the series jumped right in to the action without setting up the premise, until I realized I wasn't watching the first episode. The pilot episode ("The Informer") is in black and white, while the rest of the episodes are in color (and prefaced with the proud "CBS presents this program in color!"), so that's a perfect tip-off that you're starting with the right disc.
Hogan's Heroes hasn't aged particularly well for me, and the lackluster DVD presentation with its disc-swapping and absence of extras is a disappointment. Still, it has a nostalgia value going for it and a classic comedic simplicity that I can't discount. Fans of the series will be pleased with the collection, if not the Paramount treatment of it.
Not guilty. But then, I know nothing…nothing!
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