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Reviewed by Will Harris
azis. I hate those guys.”
So said Indiana Jones while in the midst of “The Last Crusade,” and given the atrocities committed in the name of Hitler and the Third Reich during the 1930s and 1940s, who doesn’t hate them? And because they’re so hated, it was remarkably easy to mock them during World War II, as was done impeccably in such classic films as Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be.” By the time the war was over, however, the need for mockery was gone, and the memories were far too fresh for anyone to find anything funny about the goings-on in Germany.
That being the case, you can kind of understand why CBS originally rejected “Hogan’s Heroes.”
On the surface, there wouldn’t seem to be anything funny about a POW camp in Germany during the second World War, but given that Billy Wilder had already mined similar material over a decade earlier with “Stalag 17,” it was clear that the situation could be made humorous. Once creators Bernard Fein and Albert S. Ruddy assured the network that the entire point of the series was to make the Germans look like incompetent boobs, “Hogan’s Heroes” moved forward, subsequently lasting for a not-too-shabby six-season run.
The series follows the shenanigans of American Army Air Corps Colonel Robert E. Hogan (Bob Crane) and his fellow prisoners of war as they outwit their Nazi captors at every turn – not that it’s such a difficult feat, given the likes of Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer) and Sergeant Schultz (John Banner). The group of POWs is as diverse yet ultimately generic a bunch as you’d expect from a sitcom. There’s Kinchloe (Ivan Dixon), the communications expert, Carter (Larry Hovis), the demolitions expert, LeBeau (Robert Clary), who’s both a chef and a master of covert operations, and Newkirk (Richard Dawson), the resident con-man. So let’s see: you’ve got two Americans, a Frenchman, a Brit, and, uh, a black guy. Yep, that’s mid-‘60s diversity for you. Together, this bunch proceeds to do their best to take down the German army from the inside, and as you’d expect, they succeed at their goal far more often than they fail.
“Hogan’s Heroes” is a classic ‘60s sitcom, which is to say that, as long as you know the premise, you can tune into any one of the 168 episodes. That means that there’s little concern for continuity, and if you’ve come looking for any storyline other than the general one that keeps the show going (you may know it as World War II), it also explains why it continues to thrive in syndication even now. Well, that and the fact that it’s funny. Despite the proclivities in his personal life which were detailed in the film “Auto Focus,” Bob Crane’s swaggering performance as Col. Hogan drives the series almost as much as Werner Klemperer’s misplaced confidence as the doddering Col. Klink.
If you can just get past the concept of the series, then you certainly won’t have to look hard for the laughs. There are a lot of great war-related jokes that veterans no doubt enjoyed, such as Carter’s comment that the boys in the metal shop are working on some reversible tie-pins: “On one side it says ‘Heil Hitler,’ and on the other, ‘I was in Switzerland during the war.’” In addition to the humor that’s derived from Hogan’s confidence and Klink’s obliviousness, there’s a considerable amount of slapstick that ensues from Hogan and his crew enacting their various plans. In a nutshell, Hogan’s Heroes” is a komedy klassic. (Hey, if they can use all those K’s, then so can I.)
Special Features: This is the first time that all six seasons of the series have been compiled into one box, but as is to be expected with this “komplete series” set, there’s a bonus disc which will make the fans want to howl in fury even as they’re plunking down the dough. In fairness, though, there’s some great stuff on there: an extended version of the pilot episode, promos, clips of the cast on other CBS shows as well as the Emmy Awards, conversations with co-creator Albert S. Ruddy and co-star Richard Dawson, a digital version of the Mad Magazine parody of the show (“Hokum’s Heroes), and – wait for it – an episode in German. Yes, believe it or not, Germans actually like the show. But, then, they like David Hasselhoff, too.