"MacArthur," opening today at area theaters, illustrates the folly at presuming to dramatize a great subject while lacking the ambition, imagination and resources necessary to do it a medium and resources necessary to do it a medicum of justice. A great epic film could be made about the military and political conflicts in which Gen. Douglas MacArthur played a leading role - from Pearl Harbor to his "Old Soldiers Never Die" speech before Congress after being relieved of command in the Far East by President; Truman.

Indeed, it seems absurd even to contemplate a movie about this man and the wars in the Pacific unless you're thinking big and have an actor formidable enough to carry a big show while impersonating a rather forbidding imperious protagonist "MacArthur" is at best an engrossing meliocrity, a cut-rate epic that tries to make do with an absent-minded, once over-lightly chronicle of momentous events and the resolutely sincere yet uninspired star presence of Gregory Peck.

What sustains interest in the picture despite its manifest and ongoing inadequacies, is that significant events and figures keep passing in review. More often than not the film's recreations are static and clumsy, but the underlying events retain a certain historical and emotional resonance.

For example, Peck is too passive an actor to transform MacArthur's greatest oratorical moments into great scenes. It's not his style to seize an acting opportunity forcefully, as George C. Scott did in "Patton." Admittedly, Gen. Patton seems a more colorful and accessible personality to begin with. Still, MacArthur was also considered a consumately theatrical personality of a different kind, kind and peck fails to reporduce the spellbinding, insp, and Peck fails to reporduce the spellbinding, inspirational intensity that can result from that austere kind. His MacArthur is like his Ahab in Hohn Huston's movie version of "Moby Dick": thoughtful, studied, respectable but not in the least soul-stirring.

Nevertheless, the speeches have an eloquence independent of the actor delivering them. Peck doesn't get to you, but the oratory itself still does. It's apparent that macArthur's oratorical style needs to be exploited systematically. It suggests certain crucial things about him that may be beyond the scope of any film depiction, such as his origins in the 19th century and his attachment to traditions that may have seemed remote to many Americans even a generation ago.

MacArthur was evidently a dominating, ornate speaker, and this characteristic might have proved a dramatic key to screenwriters with a knack for composing soliloquies and a star capable of holding the screen while reading them. Perhaps this accounts for the serious consideration of Laurence Olivier for the role Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, who did the screenplay for "MacArthur," certainly appreciate their subject's cloquence, but they're seldom able to sustain it outside the formal addressed themselves.

The movie was produced by Frank McCarthy, who has combined enviable careers in show business and the military. A press agent for George Abbott in the late '30s, McCarthy served as secretary to Gen. George Marshall, the Chief of Staff during World War II. McCarthy won an Academy Award six years ago as the producer of "Patton." and the Barwood-Robbins script for "MacArthur" appears to have been modeled on "Patton."

For example, "MacArthur" begins with a prologue set in 1962, on the occasion of MacArthur's splendid, touching "duty, Honor, Country" address to the corps at West Point. Unfortunately, the scene is neither as self-contained nor as powerful as the rhetorical opening of "Patton," where Scott held forth in front of an imaginary audience of soldiers. This speech would probably be more effectiven as an epilobue, and in fact the filmmakers return to it at the fadeout, having used it as a pretext for flashing back to the Phillippines in 1942, a usage that makes it appear that the speaker's mind must be wandering.

Director Joseph Sargent's mind certainly begins wandering when the scene shifts to the besieged Americans and Filipinos at Corregidor. The depiction of this wartime setting is so inept that I was inclined to write the movie off prematurely. Sargent lets the camera go lurching around looking for ravages of war instead of simply transporting us to a theater of war. He never does create an illusion of reality in battle zones or combat scenes, in part because Universal seems to have insisted on the same cheapskate recreations that made "Midway" look like a joke. There's an awful lot of over-groomed backlot terrain, plus many a humilitating cut from actual newsreel combat footage to movie-company make-believe.

In "A Bridge Too Far," a vastly more proficient piece of filmmaking director Richard Attenborough tended to lose a comprehensive view of the battle a things fell apart for the Allies, but he certainly began in a methodical, coherent manner. In "MacArthur" the campaigns are utter confusion from the outset, and its seems years before the general himself demonstrates the slightest ability.

This demostration occurs during a neatly written scene in which MacArthur persuades President Roosevelt; played by Dam O'Herlihy, that the Liberation of the Philipines is both a military and moral imperative. The writers take a few liberties with the facts, but they're the kind that justify themselves by facilitating sharp confrontations and clarifying personalities and issues.

Every scene involving President Truman also has dramatic definition, thanks in considerable measure to the nature of Truman himself and Ed Flander's excellent impersonation. Virtually helpless when movement is required, Sargent does an adequate job with such static highlights as the surrender ceremony on the U.S.S. Missouri and the reunion of MacArthur with survivors of the Bataan Death March and with Gen. Wainwright.

The inherent drama and pathos in such scenes keep the movie marginally watchable and respectable. On the whole the exposition is a mess. Instead of accumulating impressions about a complicated and elusive military leader and clarifying the epochal events of 1941-1951, the scenario tends to flounder around hypocritically, finding MacArthur astute one moment and fat-headed the next. The resulting portrait was probably meant to reflect honest ambivalence, but it seems merely evasive and inconclusive.

MacArthur was a controversial figure, but this superficial attempt at a biographical epic doesn't do much to illiminate the controversy, particularly as it affected national politics. The filmmakers have approached MacArthur without a discernible point of view, and the inevitable outcome is an expendable picture.