CBS's production of "Rape and Marriage -- The Rideout Case" (tonight at 9 on Channel 9) is a remarkable television drama about an extraordinary case. It was almost two years ago that public attention was riveted on the little courtroom in Salem, Ore., where a seamy soap opera of quarrels, beatings and forced sex unfolded as a 21-year-old short-order cook defended himself against a charge of rape, the rape of his wife.

An untested pair of producers, Blue Andre and Vanessa Greene, have re-created the events which led up to the incident, charge, trial and aftermath with stunning reality, a sensitive script and utterly believable character portrayals. The two-hour film moves with high drama from the incident (witnessed by the couple's 2 1/2-year-old daughter) to the anitclamatic (short-lived) reconciliation of the Rideouts.

When 23-year-old Greta Rideout charged her husband with rape, she touched a live nerve deeply buried in the Western tradition of man as protector, woman as chattel.

That John Rideout was acquitted was almost irrelevant.

It did not affect the Oregon law which eliminated marriage as a defense against a rape charge, despite dire predictions of some connected with the case and the stated hope of members of the town's legal establishment.

It did encourage the passage of similar laws in California and Minnesota. It did encourage the formation of the Women's History Research Center's National Clearinghouse on Marital Rape in Berkeley, Calif. Since Rideout's acquittal, there have been subsequent convictions in California as well as in Oregon itself, convictions which might not have happened if Greta Rideout had not, finally, had it.

The Rideouts did reconcile briefly after the trial. And John Rideout finally did go to jail, also briefly, for repeatedly harrassing his ex-wife after the final breakup of their marriage last year.

This is not an easy movie to watch. It is brutal, and it is harsh. The teaser promoting the movie shows John Rideout punching the wall. The movie shows much, much more. Greta Rideout's description of the rape at the trial provides some of TV's most moving and horror-filled footage. Neither Greta nor John Rideout are portrayed as any more or any less than they are. Their lives were essentially drab, even sordid. Their feelings for one another -- especially Greta's for John -- were complex, confused and contradictory. When Greta Rideout announced she and John were reconciling after the trial, public -- especially female -- reaction was incredulous, even hostile.

As it develops in Hesper Anderson's script, the reconciliation is at last, perfectly understandable, brief as it was.

And, say confidants of the real Greta Rideout, it was thus in real life.

"After all, he said publicly he was sorry and that he was wrong," said Laura X, director of the marital rape clearinghouse, who spent some 18 months researching the case and now lectures nationally on the subject, "and women are, after all, trained to be all-forgiving."

And as the fictional Greta tells a friend at the Salem rape crisis center, (describing an earlier pre-rape separation) "I miss him . . . I'm all alone without John."

"Being a victim is a hard habit to break," says the (fictional) crisis center volunteer. "We patch them up, and they run right back into the same situation . . . It's like trying to get a junkie off dope."

Greta Rideout watched some of the filming, and reportedly feels she comes off less strong than she sees herself as having been. In fact she doesn't feel she was manipulated, nor does she feel her crisis center counselors were manipulative. But if the film fails here and there to underscore a polemic or miss a feminist point, its indictment of a system that tries victim as much as rapist, is real and fearful.

Greta Rideout's wish these days is to disappear into obscurity. And indeed, the TV prototype will serve her sisters' cause as well, even as it stands on its own as first-rate TV.