Stop thinking of "Napoleon," the 1927 Abel Gance film at the Kennedy Center, as a 41/2- hour movie for $15 to $30. Think of it as a quickie, cut-rate "Nicholas Nickleby." Like "Nick-Nick" (81/2 hours, $100 and, anyway, disbanded now) this inspires that wonderfully satisfying theatrical experience of whole-heartedly cheering a hero and hissing villains, while also providing the uplift that comes from a real work of art. "Napoleon" is not just a curiosity for cinema buffs or a nostalgia item. The naive simplicity of the biographical aspect of the film is what gives it that spirited charm. Napoleon is presented as an undiluted hero who can, from childhood, quell any enemy with a glance. The foreshadowing of his career is a hoot, from passersby who predict that "Some day that child may save France" to the young British officer who asks permission to sink the scruffy vessel on which the Bonaparte family is escaping Corsica and is told, "No, Nelson." But the real dramatic focus of the film is not Napoleon, charismatically as he is played by Albert Dieudonne as an adult and by Vladimir Roudenko as a boy. It is the mob. The mob, after all, in its glorious and terrible manifestations, is the true star of the French Revolution and its aftermath. And there is nothing quaint about the portrayal of these mobs. Many movies since have had their casts of thousands, but never has this enactment of a mob, in a range of moods, been equaled. One cannot imagine the director shouting one instruction at everyone; it's as if each person in it had a fully developed role beyond those scenes. This mob clearly consists of disparate individuals, with individual wills, who add up to a collective body with a collective will. The choreography of crowds is one of the sensational visual aspects of this film, but the understated scenes -- Robespierre looking out of the side of his eyes; Marie Antoinette in a silent mixture of contempt and fear -- are also memorably artistic. There are powerful cinematic gimmicks, such as the alternation of raging sea and raging crowd, and amusing ones, as when a globe turns into Josephine's head. There are fine tableaux, familiar from paintings, including the brooding Napoleon and the murdered Marat; and hilarious ones, such as Mme. Recamier arisen from her sofa. This is a good print of the film, with the original tints -- sepia, blue, even the tri- color on the famous triple screen used for the final battle scene. And the orchestral accompaniment, a pastiche of period and new music by the producer's father, Carmine Coppola, conducting the Opera House Orchestra, is exactly right. You have to remember, when committing that time and money, that you are also getting a live Revolutionary pops concert.
NAPOLEON -- At the Kennedy Center Opera House through February 21.