Roper’s Spitfire

There is a website,, where people spot the wristwatches worn in films and try to identify them. A veneer of horology is pulled back to find Internet People who have turned product placement into an interactive sport.

But the world of luxury goods is created by advertising – especially the curiosity that is the mass-produced luxury good, where depiction can incite a purchase in the same mall that houses the theater. The apotheosis of this occurred on the wrist of James Bond in 1962. Since then, Madison Avenue has been at pains to make the lightning keep striking the same place, again and again and again.

But a character’s wristwatch might speak volumes about them. This is most true in Hollywood, for a person in real life might choose to spend their money on something other than The Watch That Defines Them As A Person, but no prop department would countenance such a thing.

In the recent miniseries The Night Manager, Hugh Laurie’s character wears an IWC Spitfire, in gold. This is a microcosm of his character, and of the moral question of the entire story. The prop manager deserves to be bought a beer.


In The Night Manager, Hugh Laurie plays Richard Onslow Roper. He is an arms dealer. He smuggles guns and bombs and toxins, playing fast and loose with international law and fanning the fires that rage in the third world. And he does it from breezy beautiful hotels in the Mediterranean, because there is nothing so English as heading for Europe and never looking back. From acts to aesthetics he is the picture of a revisionist James Bond. But that doesn’t make him Blofeld. Is he, in short, a villain?

He sells canons and cluster-bombs. But he sells to the governments of sovereign nations. Those bombs are made in other sovereign nations where their production is legal. As an Englishman he is the citizen of one such nation. As an American, so am I.

He bribes members of the British government. But he also works with the connivance of policy-makers. They want him to sell arms to their friends. He is an instrument of national policy. His payments seem somewhat less like the purchase of friendship than the reward for it – a part of a dark system, but not the corruption of a light one.

His private life is warm and respectable. He has a family. He has a young son who he adores. He has a girlfriend who he adores. He has several members of an inner circle to whom he is both employer and friend. They travel together with their children who play together. It feels a little bit feudal, but I would hesitate to call the cold distance of a corporate structure somehow superior to the warmth of the king’s table – nor is there much distinction between the worse parts of boardroom and palace life.

It is easy to condemn him if one condemns the entire system of which he is a part. This is very easy to do from an arm-chair. By this same turn it is difficult to condemn him as being a cancer upon a good system. Perhaps he is amoral – a Zaharoff who just happens to look like a Reilly. Perhaps he is immoral, as is his work. Perhaps he is a patriot, to his country or to the dirty world. Perhaps that is the question being asked.

So let us look for answers in the story.


The inciting incident comes when a subsidiary of Roper’s is found to be offering weapons to Mubarak during the Arab Spring. These weapons could be used against the protesters. The subsidiary’s mistress steals proof of the offer and gives it to a stranger to keep hidden for her. Against her wishes, the stranger turns it over to British Intelligence. The girl forgives him, but then is killed. MI6 informed Roper’s organization. The organization informed the subsidiary. The subsidiary killed the girl. The stranger sets out on a quest for vengeance against Roper.

Let us take this in parts.

First: a private company was offering weapons to Mubarak. Private companies had been selling weapons to Mubarak for the last three decades with the connivance of the western powers. It helped him keep power, which was not a side effect but the central goal. Hell, the American and British governments had made Mubarak gifts of weapons for precisely this purpose: use against his enemies, without and within.

Two: the offer of weapons was during the Arab Spring. They could have been used against peaceful protesters. No doubt they could have. Or they could have been reserved for use against violent protesters. Or they could have been kept as a check against external actors seeking to encourage, or profit upon, the chaos. Or they were being offered as a matter of routine with no thought at all to the revolution underway.

Even if they were being offered for the explicit purpose of being used to suppress the revolution, I have some trouble condemning this. Much as I have trouble saying that a bullet salesman has the responsibility of investigating the motives of the guy who buys a round. That is a governmental function. And as the series shows, it is not clear that Roper is actually subverting his government. They have been propping up Mubarak for decades. His regime teeters. They might be able to set is right. His company will effectuate their decision.

Nor must I support the revolutionaries. The protagonist says to the British agents, don’t we want the Arab Spring? They are noncommittal. A government who doesn’t want a friendly government replaced by a revolutionary movement? Dear me, what are the odds. Not the least when it comes from the government of the Pitt who fought Napoleon, who saw Cromwell changes the king’s R to the Protector’s P. In point of fact, the overthrow of Mubarak led to the presidency of Morsi, whose overthrow in turn was not exactly condemned by the western powers. The current regime has been the beneficiary of much Western largess – including what Reagan would have called ‘goodwill gifts’ – weapons.

This is a strongly ambiguous issue. The proper party to resolve the ambiguity is a government. So the protagonist does the exact right thing. He passes along the information to his government. He has no further part to play in geopolitics; he is an average person, and as Bismarck instructed, one cannot treat the acts of nations like the behavior of common men.

Whatever the morality, problems occur. The British government informs Roper’s people of the leak. Roper’s people inform the subsidiary. The subsidiary figures out where it came form, and kill the girl.

The girl said that she knew what she was doing was putting her life at risk. She did it anyway. But it goes deeper than a simple assumption of risk. She betrayed her lover. She put him in mortal danger and she knew it. In passing along this information she clearly wanted her lover to be caught and arrested and punished. I am not at all surprised that he killed her. Neither was she.

Perhaps she did it for noble motives, for her people, for the revolution. Perhaps she died a hero. Her sacrifice should be venerated. But it was a sacrifice. And it was not a clean one.

The protagonist desires vengeance. So he goes after Roper.

Seeking vengeance against the subsidiary is kind of justifiable. He did actually kill the girl. But she betrayed him, both professionally and intimately. She sought to thrust the police like a dagger at his heart. So he killed her. I can’t quite bring myself to condemn this – not to the point of saying that he deserves to die as well. A case can be made that he deserves it. But a case can be made that he does not.

But seeking vengeance against Roper is a far harder case to make. He did not kill the girl. He did not order her killed. It is a leap of faith that he has any of her blood on his hands. Perhaps he benefited from her death. Perhaps she died for his peace of mind. That does not make him a murderer.

His real culpability comes from the fact that he is an arms dealer. If he runs a criminal conspiracy, it seems likely he would have approved of her murder. Then it is easy to say that he deserves vengeance as if he did the murder himself. (This lawyer shudders).

But as said above, it isn’t so clear. The series seems less like an attempt to secure evidence against a man known to be guilty, than it is an attempt to catch the man doing something so that we can finally feel good for having gone after him in the first place. It is a quest, not for vengeance, but for its justification.

At the very end of the series, Roper finally gives us that justification. He is about to kill his girlfriend. But he’s brought to this pass because she has betrayed him. She has acted precisely the same way as the mistress of the subsidiary – she betrayed her lover, placed him and his in risk of life and limb, and was praying that she would survive but that he would not. It’s not just that she assumed the risk; she hoped that her actions would see him die. This is no new justification. Nothing has changed.

Except that it turns out the second time’s the charm! Roper is brought down, the girl survives, and the protagonist calls himself washed of his sins. They all live happily ever after. Except Roper’s child who loses his father, and the British government who lose an instrument of national policy – for what must be the eight whole minutes it takes them to anoint a replacement.


Now let us look at his wristwatch.

Our Mr. Roper’s watch is a IW387803. It is made by IWC Shaffhausen. It is a mechanical watch with an in-house movement. It is a chronograph. It is a pilot’s watch. And it is gold.

-First of all, it is a mechanical wristwatch. In the world of cell phones there is no reason why a man must wear a watch. In the world of quartz and the digital there is no reason why a man must wear a mechanical watch. But many men do – I do.

I wear a mechanical watch in part because the cultural position of the wristwatch – created by necessity and bolstered by advertising – has not yet faded in the glare of the cathode ray. I wear a mechanical watch in part because it is jewelry that a man can wear. I wear a mechanical watch because it may be depended upon apart from modern contrivances. I wear a mechanical watch in part because it is a very expensive thing that one can flash: it is Veblen sitting upon the vein, waiting to be mainlained.

But in large part I wear a mechanical watch because it is archaism celebrated, not by appreciation, but by use. To own such a watch but not wear it, to keep it as a relic like a potsherd or a scimitar, would be a constant reminder of days-gone-by. But that would be the most powerful fulfillment of Swinburne’s grand denouncement of those “who appraise[], adore, and abstain.” To own a watch would allow appraisal and adoration; to wear it abhors abstention with utility.

This latter might be one of my little considerations. But the former all apply to our Mister Roper: a little wealth, a little vanity, a little self-reliance, and a little bit of the misplaced glory of a time gone by.

-Second, Roper’s wristwatch is made by IWC. The company’s full name is IWC Schaffhausen and it is Swiss as chocolate. But originally the company was founded in England by Englishman. Manufacture was moved to Switzerland purely for economic purposes – the Swiss made lots of cheap watches, they undercut the market, and only then did they begin to build their reputation for haute horologie. The name “International Watch Company” added an air of English charm to cheap Swiss watches, just as “IWC Schaffhausen” summons notions of Swiss quality.

Our Mr. Roper is an Englishman by birth, who settles upon the life of an expatriate due to the demands of his particular business. Nothing could echo more strongly of IWC. We then are forced to wonder whether he is acting for his own extranational interests, or whether he is really an agent, however disavowed, of British policy. Is he a foreigner still claiming to be English, or an Englishman pretending to be foreign? The watch and the man are the same.

-Third, it is a pilot’s watch. These are modern watches based upon the designed of the second, or first, world war, when the watches given to pilots required the highest levels of horological precision for the purpose of timing maneuvers and charting their positions. (One might compare the marine regulators of the longitude-by-chronometer age, or the trench watches of the synchronized-bombardment age). Such watches prize legibility of the dial, usually favoring Arabic numerals (instead of little markers) at every position (rather than just those at cardinal directions). They are a popular style in modern wear, but are often seen as a little informal, a little simple, a little archaic, a little schoolboyish.

Our Mr. Roper was once a British schoolboy. He reminds us of this fact by introducing himself, from the very fore, as “little Dickey Roper” – whether he is or is not an “honorable schoolboy,” in LeCarre’s earlier phrase, is the great question of the story. His informality is central to this consideration. He is just a businessman, with a wife and a young son, and he wears open shirts and eats and drinks on the shores of the Mediterranean. He is just a man.

But this should not obscure all of his power. He holds court. He has a king’s retinue. Any difference between his dinners and the feasts of sworn swords in a castle hall are cosmetic alone. He is a princeling, not of any country but of the world, with power of life and death over his subjects and over others. In a previous era his authority would necessitate pomp and circumstance; in this era it does not. His particular business might benefit from, or even require, a studied informality.

Here one might look at the price of the watch. An IWC Spitfire chronograph, in rose gold – call it ref#IW387803 – sells for about $19,000 on the secondary market. It’s a very nice watch. You can get a little Rolex for a tenth that amount, or a humble Seiko for a hundredth. But Mr. Roper is a man of world-class means. He could wear a Patek Philippe 5270G for ten times the amount, or a 6002G for a hundred. For a man of his wealth, his wristwatch is restrained.

So is he dastardly or debonair? Is he just unprepossessing, or is it all an act? This might be the very question of the series.

But upon consideration, I do not think it is. Because the most likely answer is that it doesn’t matter; to think that the natural has primacy over the intentional is the stuff of childhood. Perhaps his potential disingenuousness is meant to engender the same kind of knee-jerk disdain as the armchair moralist attaches to an arms-dealer. But as I argued above, I think such judgments are so much bougie bathwater. Reality is far more complicated – defying, perhaps, the comfort of condemnation.

-Fourth, then, Roper’s watch is a chronograph – a stop-watch. I cannot fathom a symbolic distinction between a time-only watch, or a watch with date complications, and a watch with the chronograph complication. If anything I would say that it reinforces the theme of utility. But really it’s just that chronographs have strong associations with auto racing from the 1960s (the Heuer Monaco, the Rolex Daytona) and as such they are aglow with masculinity. Whereas time-only watches tend to be considered dress-watches, and so are decorative, and jewelry, and femininity.

-Fifthly and lastly, it is a gold watch. In and of itself, this goes to the themes of vanity and the Veblen discussed above. But there is another layer. The historical pilot’s watch would have been made of steel, and nothing but steel. It was a tool-watch, and making a tool out of gold is as silly on the wrist as in the workshop.

Silly, perhaps – but as said before, wearing a mechanical watch is a bit of a silly thing. A chronometer is anachronism from the get-go; departing from the historical hardly compounds the sin. Roper’s watch pays homage to the pilots of the World Wars; he is not a reenactor in Tommy drag. One wears a watch as jewelry and a show of wealth. Hard now to complain about gilding the guilloche.

This is the great microcosm of Roper’s character. You have taken this tool of the military – made so that soldiers might fight for king and country – and cast it in gold. Is this perversion, or apotheosis? Is it greed or is it glory? Has a death-merchant taken the noble soldier’s work and twisted it for profit, or has a soldier risen through the ranks sufficient to become the master, as every soldier dreams of and is dreampt of for every soldier?

That is the question which every Briton must ask themselves when they look at their Roper and his Spitfire. His work appears to be the logical continuation of militarism; the arms-dealer is but the extension of war by other means. Does this make him evil? Can one condemn him without condemning all of warfare – and if one does, is the condemnation not spread as thin as tissue, with no more settling on Roper than on any corporal or corpsman or camp-follower? Can one ever fault the supplier when there exists demand? And what place has a single citizen to condemn the demand, natural and even necessary, of a sovereign state?

I am unsure. I cannot condemn nor can I condone. Nor do I think that either would be appropriate. The casual observer, the individual citizen attempting to be a good one, should not be so casual with their condemnation. To consider the question is citizenship; to answer it is too easy, and is tedious.


The gold in Roper’s Spitfire is both corruption and crowning glory. Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Mr. Churchill – and that is John Le Carre at his heart. I should prefer to note that the crime is not the winning of the game, but rather the game itself; to hate the gold is to obscure the true evil, which is the tool of warfare it encases.


~ by davekov on 18 April 2017.

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