All these years later, the mind still reels at the notion that Hollywood TV producers believed they could build a successful sitcom around Allied prisoners in a Luftwaffe-run POW camp during World War II. But they were right: Hogan's Heroes lasted six years and 168 episodes. Inspired by the 1953 feature film Stalag 17, it focused on the adventures of Col. Robert Hogan (played by Bob Crane) and his fellow prisoners in Stalag 13, a camp run rather inefficiently by Col. Wilhelm Klink (Werner Klemperer) and the bumbling Sgt. Hans Schultz (John Banner). Together with his intrepid cohorts -- LeBeau (Robert Clary), Newkirk (Richard Dawson), Kinchloe (Ivan Dixon), and Carter (Larry Hovis) -- Hogan worked to further the Allied cause by undermining the Nazi campaign with sabotage and psychological warfare, often pitting rival Luftwaffe officers against each other with casually dropped bits of misinformation. The 32 episodes of Season 1 maintained a tricky balance, milking comedic situations while portraying the prisoners as ingenious, resourceful combatants whose ostensible confinement camouflaged their successful efforts to defeat the enemy. The first aired episode, "The Informer," has Carter being welcomed into Stalag 13 as Hogan tries to ferret out a spy. "Happy Birthday, Adolf" finds the prisoners attempting to destroy a nearby gun emplacement on Hitler's birthday. "Hello, Zolle" features future Love Boat star Gavin MacLeod as a German officer being detained at the camp to allow the Allies to complete a troop deployment. And "Cupid Comes to Stalag 13" introduces character actor Hans Conried as a pacifistic Italian officer who'd rather make pizza than fight the war. It's nothing short of remarkable that Hogan's Heroes so consistently made a prison camp seem less like hell and more like a prep school filled with heroic, if mischievous, boys.
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There's a lot of pop-culture history, as well as bad references to World War II history, in Hogan's Heroes, as as one can see when watching the five-disc Paramount set Hogan's Heroes: The Complete First Season. The 32-episode package (six on three of the platters, seven on two of them) includes the opening episode, the pilot show "The Informer, but no extras of any kind. For openers, although the pilot is in black-and-white (and has a somewhat grimmer mood than the subsequent series, and one character, a Russian played by Leonid Kinskey, who was immediately written out, plus another, played by Larry Hovis, who was reconstituted and rewritten as a regular for the series), the subsequent series was in color. As a result, each episode starts with the original CBS network opening announcement (using three tones that almost parody the NBC signature tones) declaring that it is in color, which evokes another era, when a series going out in color was something special and different. The series itself came at the tail-end of a cycle of World War II television programs that started with shows like The Gallant Men and ended with sitcoms like this and McHale's Navy -- and you can always tell when a cycle has run its course when the comedic treatments start to displace the serious shows in the public consciousness. The programs themselves, with the exception of episode eight, "Movies Are Your Best Escape, generally look sensational, full-frame (1.33:1) and sharp, with bright color and clear sound; star Bob Crane's aviator jacket is in almost 3-D relief in one close-up. Beyond that, however, watching this series in 2005 in this package proved highly problematic, if not downright disturbing. This reviewer finally understood, watching this set, why my father -- who was a prisoner-of-war in Germany in 1945 -- so despised Hogan's Heroes, which tried to make comedy out of such a setting. The whole tone of the series now makes this reviewer's skin crawl, despite the presence of highly gifted comedic performers such as John Banner, Werner Klemperer, Robert Clary, Hovis, and Richard Dawson (who was also a highly skilled dramatic actor at the time), plus future director Ivan Dixon in the cast, and top comedy directors, including Gene Reynolds and Howard Morris. Even at those moments where a piece of truth gets through -- like when a character remarks that the prisoners at some stalags eat better than the guards -- it's told as a joke. The discs are well produced, with six chapters (corresponding to the commercial breaks) for each episode and simple menus that open automatically on start-up. The only question is whether any of this seems funny now to many people and, if it does, what that says about the way we understand history.
Barnes & Noble - Ed Hulse