Something is backwards at the movies:

The "The Big Red One" should rightfully be the film you've hardly heard of, and "The Great Santini" the one spread all over the multiplex screens of shopping-center America.

"The Big Red One," Sam Fuller's tooth-in-cheek account of a single platoon's journey through World War II, has a cigar stuck in it's mouth from start to finish, and ricochets with couplets from a Sgt. Rock comic book ("Sarge, am I gonna die in the morning?" "What makes you different from anybody else, kid.")

The result is a full-scale assault on a Hill of Bean. "Big Red One" has gotten talked up mainly because Fuller, a colorful champion of action movies ("Merrill's Marauders," "Steel Helmet") produced within small budgets, is a darling of the cognoscenti. At age 67, this is his first Big Movie. Now that Hollywood has finally hoisted him up the flagpole, we're supposed to salute.

"The Great Santini," on the other hand, never got above half-mast. It too is a war story -- the story of a Marine fighter pilot in 1962 left with no war to fight except with his family and his superiors and the peace of the community. It was based on the book by Pat Conroy, author of "The River Wide," who apparently had such a father. Robert Duvall and Blythe Dannner, as Bull Meecham and his long-suffering wife Lillian, give perhaps the best performances of their careers, and Michael O'Keefe's portrayal of Bull's eldest son is extraordinarily affecting and skilled. Each is a natural nominee for the Academy Adwards.

In fact, "The great Santini" is arguably the best movie of the year so far. There is not much argument, however, because theatergoers haven't been able to seet it. White "The Big Red One" plays moviehouses nationally, "The Great Santini" -- retitled "The ace" -- has been playing tonight for the final time. It has also been playing the airlines, courtesy of In-Flight Motion Pictures. An appearance in those two markets is generally evidence that a film has completed its first-run course; in the case of "Santini," it is evidence of a movie that never got out of the starting blocks.

What happened?

The question draws a sigh from Charles A. Pratt, who as head of Bing Crosby Productions got involved with the project more than three years ago, after working on such flicks as "Williard," "Walking Tall" and "The Reincarnation of Peter Proud."

Pratt says he "loved 'Santini from the first page." He got United Artists interested in proving half the financial backing then watched the top executive of United Artists walk out and form Orion Pictures, then eventually saw Orion pick "Santini" back up.

"We finished the movie at the end of 1979," Pratt explains. "Everybody thought it was great. Duvall included, and we were very excited. We figured the logical place for a premiere was Beaufort, S.C., near the Marine air base where we did a lot of shooting. We also opened it in a string of theaters around there, too, with a good deal of hoopla. Unbelievably, the picture did poorly, even in Beaufort. I was as confused as anybody.

"Then Orion Pictures and Warner Brothers decided to go for a wide-scale opening, with a lot of TV ads. We did that in four markets, and we bombed out."

As the film bounced around, Pratt says, its title kept changing. In fort Wayne, Ind., it played as "Sons and Heroes" and went nowhere. Screened in Illinois as "Reaching Out", it fell flat. "The Ace" seemed a little better than the original, but not much. For some reason, the promotors found, "The Great Santini" conjured up images of an Italian juggling act -- not a Robert Duvall movie.

"I finally urged Orion to go small," Pratt says. "Just open it in New York and let it build. Let's face it, you hit right guard three time and lose five yards it's time for an end run." orion, however, was losing interest fast, and Pratt went, to Cox Broadcasing and Fuqua Industries of Atlanta -- the owners of Crosby productions -- for added help in setting up the New York engagement.

"We had the movie booked at the Festival Theater there," Pratt says, "when all of a sudden they tell me it's cancelled, Why? Because 'The Ace' has been sold to pay television, that's why. I was outraged, and blew my top. The people at Orion hedged, but they just said -- 'Hey, that's the way it goes.' They didn't even apologize."

Orion denies that any aplology was necessary, since the Home Box Office run may turn out to be the first real attension the firm receives. As for the difficulties in marketing the pictures, "We all agonized about it," an Orion spokesman told the press last week. "The movie had every opportunity and it didn't look like there was a chance of turning it around."

"It was blunder," Pratt says, "but I don't think it was malicious. everybody should see. On a budget of $4 million."

The problems, simply put, seemed to be that neither Duvall nor Danner is a box-off magnet, and that the film itself -- despite favorable rreviews during its career in tryout towns -- is not easy to describe in advertising. "The Blue Lagoon" can define itself to its audience with the mere mention of "A Story of Natural Love." But why would anyone love a Santini?

As a title, "The Big Red One" also caused some confusion (at last until people remembered the shoulder patch of the First Infantry Division, but it was also clearly a battleground action picture with Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill. Its ad campaign is working fine.

"Look, with 'Big Red' you've got a major studio -- United Artists -- which has poured some money into the picture," Pratt says. "Because they put in money the picture, they went for a heavy ad campaign on television. Because they've got television all over, they have to book the movie all over. When that happens, lots of people get to see it."

Pratt has not seen "The Big Red One" yet, but he plans to. "I was an infantry-man in World War II myself. I did read the script about three years ago, when the movie was offered to me." What did he think? "I passed on it, "Pratt says.

There is no good reasons why the fuller movie and "The Great Santini" could not happily coexist in the nation's theaters. But that does not mean there not a reason.

"The trouble is that filmmakers aren't running the industry anymore," Pratt says. "They don't know and they don't care how your soul and guts are involved in a picture. Movies are just canned goods to them."

"The Great Santini" could be sold as canned goods too, except that its label seems to be missing. That is the fate that sometimes befalls a movie which invests its remarkable qualities in characters, and not in plot. The dumber the plot, the easier to trumpet it ("Raise the Titanic!"); but to sell an Ingmar Berman movie you cite the master's name, then step back and hold your breath.

Duvall's Bull Meecham is frighteningly memorable, both as a hilariously terrifying father and as an abominably deported representative of the Marine officer corps. But he defies easy summation. Even the moviemakers, to their credit, never succeed in figuring out what he "means." By the end of an hour and a half of 35-millimeter film, "The Great Santini" has drawn characters that a good novelist would be hard pressed to equal in 800 pages.

Playing against Duvall, Blythe Danner's Lillian Meecham is a brainwashed but resilient ally against the family fate, faithfully lining up her three kids for inspection, and managing simulataneously to evoke despair, heroism, love and motherhood in magnolia-scented tones.

The relaltionship between Bull and his 18-year-old son, who has the remarkably difficult job of coming of age in the Meecham Way, alone would fill out a less substantial film. In this case, the singular experience of watching Duvall bounce a basketball off Michael O'Keefe's head, in a scene which continues step-by-step up an entire staircase, is only one visual metaphor of among many of equal impact.

This information, of course, is of immediate interest only to the 23,000 Washington-area household's which happen to have Home Box Office -- on "The Ace" will air at 6 p.m. today.

Fortunately, however, audiences will have another chance. After more than a year of growing moss, "The Great Sanstini" is showing signs of becoming a rolling stone after all. It finally opened two weeks ago at one theater in New York City. During that time, helped by favorable reviews and word of mouth, it has broken the Guild Threater's all-time house attendance record.

The film will open in one more movie theater in Los Angeles this weekend, and will make an appearance in Philadelphia and Boston later this month.

On Sept. 19, it arrives at the Outer Circle in Washington.

"I really don't know if we'll ever make any money on it or not, now," says Pratt.

"But it isn't just the money. Whn yu make a movie like this, you at least want people to have the chance to see it."