"Caravans," which crept into four suburban theaters over the weekend, has endured an inglorious trek from best-selling novel to movie spectacle.

When the production began a few years ago in the deserts and mountains near Isfahan, Iran, it was considered an important undertaking, destined to encourage international filmmaking in Iran while providing a new source of investment capital, Iranian oil money, to enterprising producers.

One political revolution and a floundering theatrical release later, "Caravans" will be lucky if it's remembered as an expensive flop. This property has taken more than 12 years and cost a reputed $12 million to achieve an almost instant oblivion.

Ironically, the film's emptiness is magnified by the contrast between its drab, flimsy plot and vast, majestic landscapes. "Caravans" is too inert to be salvaged by the photogenic advantages of impressive scenery.

James Michener's novel was bought by MGM in 1966. At that time MGM was still a major distributor and might have derived false hopes from the success of "Dr. Zhivago," a thorny literary acquisition that emerged as a rosy box-office attraction after David Lean and Robert Bolt got through tinkering with it. Eight sereenplays and $1 million were reportedly exhausted trying to "lick" Michener's opus, which evidently suffered from a lack of dramatic interest -- as opposed to travel or anthropological interest -- that remains unlicked to this day.

Elmo Williams, the producer of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" acquired "Caravans" from a discouraged, diminished MGM in the mid-'70s in order to launch a partnership with the shah's brother-in-law, Dr. Mehdi Boushehri, who was eager to expand and professionalize filmmaking facilities in Iran.

The ostensible setting is a country called Kashkan shortly after World War II. One may imagine it lying somewhere between Iran and Afghanistan and delight in the ironic significance of the name.

Michael Sarrazin, looking pathetically unfit for the job, plays an American Embassy attache assigned to discover the whereabouts of Jennifer O'Neill, a runaway socialite. She has already scandalized her father, a U.S. senator, by becoming one of the wives of an ambitious, sinister Kashkanian colonel, a role hilariously scowled and enunciated by Iranian actor Behrooz Vosoughi.

Now the headstrong filly has bolted again, deserting her husband for a nomadic life with a hearty old Bedouin patriarch, inevitably and enjoyably embodied by Anthony Quinn.

After a considerable amount of unproductive, if picturesque, camping out, the story sputters to a half hearted violent conclusion. The unhappy colonel, rightly suspecting the nomad of both gun-running and wife-hiding, surrounds the caravan with his trained, mechanized army. It's no contest, a fact quickly recognized by both war chiefs, though not before their mutually beloved shiksa has taken a fatal wound of some kind.

Universal picked up the American distribution rights to "Caravans" only last fall, for reasons that may be clear to their accountants but degy mere common-sense box-office expectations. Withe typical acumen the management of Radio City Music Hall jumped at the chance to inflict yet another lifeless diversion on its dwindling audience and booked "Caravans" as the Christmas holiday disappointment.

It's quite a consummation for a $12-million project. When Williams and Boushehri began, they formed a production company called Ibex, the Latin name for a wild goat indigenous to Asia Minor. Given the finished product, a more appropriate emblem would be a melancholy turkey.