ABEL GANCE'S, great silent epic "Napoleon" took the audience at the Paris Opera by storm when it was first shown on April 7, 1927. Arthur Honneger conducted the orchestra in a specially arranged score, and the stage held a massive screen to accommodate Gance's most astonishing enhancement of the spectacle -- Triptych Polyvision, a three-screen process that anticipated Cinerama by three decades and directly inspired the inventor of CinemaScope, Henri Chretien.

The opening-night enthusiasts included a young captain named Charles DeGaulle and his friend Andre Malraux. According to Gance, "Malraux told me [De Gaulle] stood up and waved his great, long arms in the air and shouted, 'Bravo, tremendous, magnificent!'"

De Gaulle's response was echoed by thousands of satisfied movie freaks last weekend at Radio City Music Hall in New York, where a 4 1/2-hour restoration of "Napoleon" premiered to sold-out houses. Carmine Coppola conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in a newly composed score of his own and the showing was crowned with a final reel restoring the Polyvision process in its multiple-imaged grandeur.

The enthusiasm of the audience inspired the organizers of the event -- British film historian Kevin Brownlow (who supervised the restored version), Coppola's illustrious filmmaking son Francis, independent distributor Robert A. Haris, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art Film Library -- to add performances last night and this afternoon and then confirm plans to take both movie and orchestra on the road later this year to "10 major cities," including Atlanta, Toronto, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington.

Napoleonic metaphors have often been invoked to characterize the artistic dedication and genius of Gance -- at 91 the oldest surviving hero of the pioneering era of motion pictures -- and his "Napoleon" is a uniquely vivid, transporting spectacle. It not only strives to recreate the dramatic events of a tumultuous period but also to reawaken the explosive emotional climate that triggered them. This phenomenal movie derives its enduring power and fascination from Glance's impassioned vision of a heroic national past. It sustains an almost mystic quality of illusion by seeming to bear witness to the very moments in which history and legend merge.

At the first performance on Jan. 23, the recurrent ovations began during the prologue, which introduced Napoleon as a precocious, austere, solitary Youth of Destiny at a military boarding school. This sequence had been excluded from "Bonaparte and the Revolution," -- an earlier restoration of "Napoleon" supervised by Gance himself when he was in his early 80s -- which commences with the Revolution, but tantalizing flashbacks had literally flashed across the screen in later sequences. For example, Gance recalls images of the youthful Napoleon during the whirlwind finale. One dazzling triptych juxtaposes close-ups of the young Napoleon in the left-hand screen and the adult Napoleon in the right-hand screen flanking a map of Italy in the center panel.

According to legend, the pictorial highlight of the prologue was a frenzied snowball fight in which Napoleon demonstrates his military acumen at a tender age. As the shots of flying and bursting snowballs became progressively shorter and faster, the illusion seemed to decompose, obliterated rather than enhanced by the jagged, high-velocity editing.

The real revelation and triumph of the prologue was a subsequent sequence that begins and ends by identifying Napoleon with an eagle, a pet kept at the school. We're shown the boy's affection for the animal, which is then loosed from its cage and shooed into the night by malicious schoolmates, prompting Napoleon to take on an entire dormitory, a challenge that results in a colossal pillow fight, inspiring Gance's initial display of segmented imagery, as the spectacle of battling boys in a shower of feathers jumps from a single image to three images, then from three to nine.

Ostracized, Napoleon takes lonely refuge on the limber of a cannon somewhere on the school grounds. Tears begin to stream down his face. Gance completes the passage with a sensational lyric flourish. The lost eagle suddenly flies into camera range and lights on the barrel of the cannon. The eagle-child is reunited with his beloved, symbolic pet. Fadeout. The audience goes justifiably wild.

Sweeping and spectacular as it is, "Napoleon" represented only a fraction of Gance's original epic conception. He had envisioned a six-film cycle tracing Napoleon from his schooling in Brienne to St. Helena. Ultimately, he had to be content with the first installment, which concentrates on the Revolutionary upheavals, Napoleon's emergence as a daring commander during the siege of Toulon, his romance with Josephine and the invasion of Italy.

Gance's ambitions spooked French producers from the outset. An extravagant, arduous production, "Napoleon" was initially financed by a German industrialist and then by a Russian. After purchasing American distribution rights for $400,000, a considerable sum at the time, MGM reduced Gance's epic to an incomprehensible 80 minutes. In Paris it ran about six hours, shown in three two-hour segments on consecutive days. Gance believes that MGM gutted the picture out of fear that audiences would demand the additional attraction of Polyvision at a time when Hollywood was apprehensive enough about the prospect of converting to talkies.

The project spurred Gance to astonishing innovative feats. In addition to inventing and exploiting a wide-screen process, he shot one reel in a new color process and another in 3-D, which he considered effective but ultimately discarded as too distracting. He made mighty efforts to liberate camera movement and achieve fluid, subjective effects.

He mounted a cameraman on horseback for one chase sequence, suspended cameras from wires for overhead tracking shots, invented gyroscopic devices to steady the movement in hand-held shots, and strapped a camera to a pendulum to create the surging, vertiginous illusion that climaxes the sensational "double tempest" sequence, in which Napoleon's struggle to ride out a storm in a small boat is intercut with scenes of political turmoil so convulsing the mob at the Paris Convention that the hall literally pitches and rolls in rhythm with the waves at sea.

Gance never enjoyed such a grandiose creative opportunity again. "Napoleon" was at once his greatest accomplishment and his professional Waterloo. Having made a picture that threatened to burst the bounds of the medium, economically as well as artistically, Gance was kept on a short financial leash by French producers. He himself acknowledged that the prospects presented by Polyvision so excited him that he lost interest in "the conventional cinema." Expressing the constraints he felt with inimitable poetic flair, Gance once remarked, "I have been in perpetually unstable powerful locomotive if it cannot run quickly along somewhat solid rails?"

Kevin Brownlow has completed a heroic quest of restoration that began in boyhood when he collected films in a 9.5mm gauge intended for home projection and became obsessed with two fragments from "Napoleon." The chronicle of his search for the rest of the picture is told by Brownlow himself in the current edition of American Film. Seeing the Polyvision reel restored at the Music Hall, one perceives at once why Gance was elated by the pictorial scope it promised him and why the same prospect might have given shortsighted movie executives the heebie-jeebies.

As unveiled by Gance, the panoramic screen looms as a magnificent creative resource. Not content with the impressive picturesque expansion achieved by stretching the movie canvas, Gance also experimented successfully with multiple images suggestively juxtaposed and even superimposed, often in breathtaking, torrential rhythmic patterns.

Gance's intuitive grasp of the expressive possibilities presented by the wide screen is illustrated immediately by a witty experiment in lateral movement. While the three adjacent cameras record the army massed for inspection, we see Napoleon on horseback in the background, riding along the ranks from right to left, with two other horsemen trailing him. There's a slight time delay when they cross the intersection connecting the middle pannel of the triptych with the lefthande panel, but you're more charmed than disillusioned by the hitch. After all, Cinerama hadn't licked the problem 30 years later. The horsemen disappear at the extreme left of the frame, only to reappear a moment later, now in the foreground, where they pass in beautifully fluid motion from left to right in front of your delightfully startled eyes.

Gance alternates between panoramic and multiple images, picturesque and symbolic spectacle. Occasionally, the techniques are merged: on the left a map, in the center a close-up of Josephine, on the right a spinning globe, all superimposed over a three-screen panorama of a battlefield. Gance saves one glorious embellishment for the very last, a touch that set off the audience like a Fourth of July rocket: a tri-colored triptych, with the panels tinted red, white and blue.

Eventually, Robert Harris' company, Images Film Archive, will be distributing both "Napoleon" and "Bonaparte and the Revolution." There are reasons why each should be cherished and kept in theatrical circulation. In its roadshow presentation "Napoleon" will, of course, offer the stirring novelty of hearing a silent classic with a live orchestral accompaniment. I had mixed feelings about the Coppola score, which will be imprinted on the soundtrack of "Napoleon" once the roadshow tour is over. Graceful and appealing in a romantic or serenely lyrical vein, the score didn't seem equal to the challenge of Gance's tempestuous or martial scherzos, which might find a more congenial musical imagination in John Williams.

Half a century ago, a number of contemporary critics described Gance's forceful personality. The late Georges Sadoul spoke of "A man of monumental talents who moved mountains and was almost crushed by them . . . His strange genius was marked by a single-minded determination that flung caution and restraint to the winds."

Or the music critic Emile Vuillermoz: "The actors . . . felt themselves swept away by a surge of enthusiasm much stronger than their will power. Gance directed their emotions as a conductor directs his instrumentalists. All the shrieking, gesticulating hubbub belonged to him. I am sure that Gance, with his extras, could successfully storm the Elysee Palace if he wanted to."

Gance was unable to attend the New York showings. He sent a lovely telegram conveying his regrets, read on opening night by Gene Kelly, who is currently working as a consultant for Francis Coppola's Zoetrope Studios. Coppola and Robert Harris did the honors at subsequent showings.

The message read as follows: "When I came to New York two years ago, I fell in love with its excitement and grandeur. I wanted very much to return to New York this weekend, but I don't have the pep necessary to make the trip. [At this point Kelly revealed that Grace had written 'Je ne c'est pas la pep' in his own language.] At the age of 91 I don't have enough confidence in my body. My spirit is with you, and I am deeply moved that my 'Napoleon' is being shown to such a large and enthusiastic audience. I hope that its images, although silent, will still have something to say to you." CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption, From "Napoleon"; Pictures 2 through 6, no caption