Only the mid-1960s could have produced a sitcom as conceptually bizarre as Hogan's Heroes. Only then could such an outrageous conceit -- a comedy about Allied prisoners inside a German P.O.W. camp -- naively sidestep its inherent tastelessness. Like a lot of comedies airing on American television at the time, Hogan's Heroes was a one-trick pony, a sanitized riff (if not outright theft) of popular P.O.W. movies like Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963). Those movies were grimly sardonic but they were also immensely popular, as was the less similar Best Picture Winner The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which nevertheless earned record-breaking ratings when it made its network television debut in 1966, during Hogan's second season (1966-67).
The series took a page from Paul Brickhill's non-fiction book about The Great Escape in which the (mostly British) prisoners of Stalag Luft III plotted subversive little practical jokes against their captors while digging the tunnels they hoped would lead them to freedom. Mostly though, their situation was pretty bleak, with many men dying within its barbed wire or shot trying to escape. In Hogan's Heroes, the fantasy life of the prisoners in Stalag 13 is comparable to a holiday in the mountains, at a low-end ski lodge. None of the prisoners is ever in serious danger, let alone shot, and the Germans charged with guarding them are either loveable teddy bears (John Banner's Sgt. Shultz) or malleable, shameless sycophants (Werner Klemperer's Col. Klink).
This, combined with their elaborate tunnel system and high-tech gadgetry (no doubt inspired by the then-current James Bond craze), allows Commanding Allied Officer Col. Hogan (Bob Crane) and his men -- French prisoner and resident tailor Cpl. LeBeau (Robert Clary), Cockney grifter Cpl. Newkirk (Richard Dawson), communications expert Sgt. "Kinch" (Ivan Dixon), and enthusiastic chemist/patsy Sgt. Carter (Larry Hovis) -- to regularly sneak out of the camp to engage in outrageous (and always bloodless) acts of sabotage.
Long before its second year began, Hogan's Heroes had already settled into a formula from which it almost never deviated -- it certainly never evolved or took any chances. In the course of 26 minutes, Hogan and his Heroes are presented with a new top secret mission while a visiting German (less bumbling than Shultz or Klink, but still easily fooled) threatens to gum up the works. Hogan manipulates both Klink and Shultz into unwittingly assisting their cause, and the Allies succeed in blowing up this or that refinery.
Beyond the fact that no one ever seems to die or even winged by a stray bullet, perhaps the most outrageous aspect of the program is how freely Hogan and his men are able to move outside the confines of the prison camp. They simply don one of their seemingly endless supply of German uniforms and walk around the German countryside speaking in English but adopting German accents.
The show would be of little interest if not for its cast, especially Werner Klemperer, whose spineless Klink justly earned the actor five Emmy nominations in a row (he won twice). Though well established as a dramatic actor -- he had been the outspoken, unrepentant judge in both the live television and film versions of Judgment at Nuremberg -- Klemperer proved a supremely funny character comedian. He has exquisite timing and moves his entire body well, effortlessly shifting from self-styled pomposity to shameless ass-kissing. John Banner's Sgt. Shultz -- surely inspired by a combination of Sig Ruman's Col. Erhardt and that character's assistant, also named Schultz, in Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942) -- is a much more limited character ("I see nothing! NOTHING!" ad infinitum), though Banner is also quite good. Also fine was the third authentic German in the cast, the late Leon Askin as Klink's fat, bug-eyed boss, General Burkhalter, a kind of Luftwaffe Eugene Pallette. (Askin died this summer at 97, though he continued to act until just before his death.)
As for Bob Crane, he's well-cast in a part that seems modeled after William Holden, but without the cynicism usually associated with his characters. Breezy and affable, Hogan was clearly intended as "the star," with his con games getting all the laughs, but ultimately he's more the straight man, the Bud Abbott-ish shyster feeding Klemperer and Banner. For a show about P.O.W.s, all eyes are really on the Germans. Moreover, Crane's ghastly murder and revelations about his private life can't help but hang over the show like a dark cloud. This was true when the show was in syndication during the late-1970s and it's true today, nearly 30 years after his death.
One very impressive aspect of the show is its production values. For the most part the show looks like a moderately-budget war movie. The Great Escape went all the way to Germany to shoot its exteriors of Stalag Luft III, but Hogan's Heroes succeeds with a very close facsimile, complete with pine trees and snow drifts, on a Culver City backlot. (Sigrid Valdis, who played Klink's secretary, remembers it as the MGM backlot, but it's possible she means the nearby Desilu backlot, where King Kong and Gone with the Wind had been shot, and where the interiors were filmed. Special mention must also go to composer Jerry Fielding, whose catchy themes no doubt contributed to the show's popularity.
Video & Audio
Hogan's Heroes - The Complete 2nd Season looks outstanding, with flawless color and a razor sharp image, this despite cramming up to seven episodes per disc. The episodes are complete and not time-compressed, running 25-26 minutes apiece, and are preceded by a nostalgic CBS logo noting the network "presents this program in color!" The mono sound is clear, but there are no subtitles or alternate language tracks.
Considering the superior Paramount-owned shows released to DVD without extras, the bountiful supplements on Hogan's Heroes come as a surprise. Sigrid Valdis, who married Crane in 1970, seems to have provided most of the material, but CBS DVD/Paramount have pulled out all the stops as well, with commentary tracks and the like.
The Audio Commentaries aren't easy to find, as viewers have to select the episode before the commentary option appears. Sigrid Valdis provides a nostalgic track for the season opener, "Hogan Gives a Birthday Party," while Disc 3 features Robert Clary on "Art for Hogan's Sake" ("Ah, those drums, those feet," he exclaims over the opening titles.) It's a shame so many of those involved with the series have passed away.
The rest of the features are found on Disc 5. A Gag Reel Edited by Bob Crane runs five minutes and features the usual bloopers and on-set gags. Better is a fascinating Patricia and Bob Crane's Wedding Film with Audio Commentary by Patricia Crane, shot on a Desilu soundstage in 1970. Having recently divorced from a previous wife, Crane was too cash poor to pay for his own wedding, so the show picked up the tab for publicity purposes and invited cast members and Hollywood columnists. The footage has sound but mostly Crane's widow reminisces.
Bob Crane's 8mm Home Movies on the Hogan Set with Audio Commentary by Patricia Crane are equally interesting, showing the cast and crew between takes, and capturing the atmosphere of a single-camera show from that era. Two CBS Promos are included, a 90-second spot features John Banner inexplicably working as a TWA baggage handler and features an uncredited John Cameron Swayze.
A Jello/Dream Whip Commercial with Carol Channing has to be seen to be believed, a mini-episode all by itself that blurs the lines between show and commercial that was common to 1960s television but inconceivable today. Most of the cast appear in character in a two-minute clip from The Leslie Uggams Show, which was shot on tape, while Bob Crane appears as himself in excerpts from a 1966 episode of The Lucy Show, which includes a cameo by John Banner, in character as Schultz.
Two amazing U.S. Air Force Recruitment Spots tastelessly refer to real P.O.W.s in Vietnam, and promise recruits "plenty of thrilling travel to exotic lands with strange-sounding names!"
Bob Crane Radio Material includes a 1965 interview with Richard Dawson and, oddly, Chad Everett, while a 1966 Armed Forces Radio Christmas Show features most of the cast. Finally, an extensive Photo Gallery is badly designed, making the photos appears as if they were being reflected in a dirty mirror.
Hogan's Heroes is a singularly odd, ill-conceived show that's polished and occasionally funny because of the performances rather than its scripts or situations. Normally, a show like this gets a "Rent It" rating, but the extras are so good and so extensive, and the transfers of the episodes so pristine, this set comes "Highly Recommended" for fans of the series.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.