The Hollywood version -- sexy, but oversimplified -- might go like this:

As the credits roll, a bespectacled man walks through the Pentagon maze to a small cubicle in Ring C. He's no one to notice in particular, just one of thousands who work in the bureaucracy of weapons and war. But then this military Clark Kent ducks into an invisible phone booth and comes out fighting.

Zap! A left to the generals. Pow! A right to the defense contractors. Bam! A frontal attack on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the controversial armored troop carrier that has gained a reputation in some circles as a dangerous lemon. It's "Whistleblower: The Motion Picture," coming soon to combat theaters near you.

The real story is more complex, but it certainly doesn't lack drama. It is the story of Air Force Col. James Gordon Burton -- who was forced into retirement, his supporters say, after relentlessly pushing for realistic tests of the Bradley and incurring the wrath of Defense Department secretaries and undersecretaries, four-star generals and defense contractors alike. It is a tale about charges of suppression and coercion, about leaked documents, about billions in defense funds, about outraged Bradley defenders and about an angry band of influential congressmen on the Hill and a handful of military reformers in the Pentagon who see in Burton's saga the Ultimate Raw Deal.

Burton's supporters view him as a lone voice trying to save the lives of the estimated 50,000 infantrymen who would ride in the vehicles. "The Bradley is a mobile ammunition dump that would blow with catastrophic results," says a tester present at some of the Bradley tests. Burton's opponents call the vehicle "an infantryman's dream" -- faster and more powerful than any personnel carriers ever built.

Since the Bradley controversy erupted, the Pentagon has several times attempted to transfer Burton out of arms way; once it tried to send him to Alaska, the U.S. equivalent of Siberia. Last month he was ordered to move to Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base or retire. He chose retirement. The weapons tester, who turned 49 on May 3, will be out of work on July 1, his retirement date. Until then he'll continue to answer questions from a team of investigators from various Armed Services subcommittees sifting all the charges and countercharges. Last week, Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), a leader of the Military Reform Caucus, and Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, requested that the Defense Department inspector general's office investigate the events surrounding Burton's resignation.

The Pentagon vociferously denies that Burton is being harassed for his views on Bradley testing. "There is a mythology being created about the Bradley and the individual involved," declares U.S. Army public affairs officer Maj. Phillip Soucy, a principal spokesman for the Bradley. "He is saying his sole interest is the safety of the soldiers; it's all cloaked in the purest white, but that doesn't cloud over ignorance."

Except for his congressional testimony, Burton himself is silent. He has adamantly refused to talk to the news media. Friends portray him as a man who tried to work through the system and is particularly sensitive to charges of grandstanding that typically follow those labeled "whistleblowers." Foes accuse him of hiding behind leaked documents.ip,1

"There's no question in my mind that Jim is dedicated to doing things right on behalf of the country as he sees them," says one of Burton's former bosses. "On the other hand, there is a shrillness of zeal in Jim's approach . . . The system has difficulty with such zeal; I can see where those in power might feel they have the right to fire him."

This vehicle is being killed by verbal terrorism! And the victim can't protect itself because it's a vehicle! It can't testify in its own behalf.

-- Army spokesman Maj. Phillip Soucy

The Bradley Fighting Vehicle, built by FMC Corp., is a 25-ton armored personnel carrier with a 25 mm cannon and antitank missiles mounted on top; it looks like a small tank, though its primary purpose is still to carry infantrymen into combat. The Army plans to buy almost 7,000 Bradleys at a total cost of $10.6 billion. So far 3,000 Bradleys have been purchased at $1.5 million apiece.

To Soucy, the Bradley "represents the best chance the infantryman has ever had on any battlefield to actually influence the outcome of the battle. It is the best tool we've handed to the infantry since the longbow."

To its critics, the vehicle is a deathtrap -- they've nicknamed it "the Ronson" -- that could incinerate the men inside if hit by enemy fire.

The Bradley fight features plenty of the usual posturing and positioning, vested interests and verbal jabs. But there is an exceptional, angry rawness to the rhetoric coming out of Congress and the Pentagon in this case.

Burton's supporters on the Hill, citing documents generated by the colonel, talk about rigged tests of "survivability" and a pattern of "stonewalling and deception" by the Army. Says Soucy: "Members of Congress have stood on the floor of the House -- a nice convenient place where they can't be held accountable -- and said the Army lied, cheated, gilded, misrepresented."

The Army contends that Burton and his supporters misrepresent the facts through half-truths and misinterpretation of data -- partly out of ignorance and partly (in the case of the politicians) because Pentagon-bashing plays well to constituents. And in a rare four-star rebuttal to congressional charges of deliberate deception by the military, Gen. John A. Wickham Jr., the Army chief of staff, protested that "Honor is not an empty word to the soldiers of the United States Army. We stake our lives and the freedom of our country on our sacred honor."

Sen. Pryor has been particularly outspoken. "It is not Colonel Burton we should be getting rid of," Pryor said in one statement. "Instead, it is those who have tried to rig tests, those who have tolerated rigged tests and those who have conspired to unload Colonel Burton that we should be showing the door."

Boundless energy and a driving competitive spirit are the characteristics of 'The Bird.' This small town boy from the midwest has in four years grown to be one of the outstanding leaders of the class as evidenced by his twice being selected for group commander duty. Whether on the baseball field where he is a power hitting outfielder, in the classroom where he is an above average student, or commanding his group at a ceremony, it is the same ambition-talent combination that put him where he is. He knows what he wants and is capable of achieving it completely.

-- From the 1959 Air Force Academy yearbook

Sandy-haired and slender, quiet and nonflamboyant, Burton seems an unlikely figure to inspire the kind of controversy that surrounds him today. But conversations with friends, colleagues and family members confirm that Burton's unassuming manner belies a stubborn competitiveness that helps keep him fighting against long odds.

Born in Normal, Ill., at the tag end of the Depression, Burton knew success early. He collected straight As from first grade through high school and was also a star athlete who received offers from professional baseball teams.

"The scouts were after him all the time," recalls his mother, Aileen Fowler. "They said, 'He's awfully thin, put a lot of weight on him.' And I'd say, 'You just stay away from him. I want him to go to college.' "

Though small (he is now only 5 feet 9), Burton also played basketball, and he was honored as the best high school quarterback in the area. He was in the National Honor Society, was president of the student council and of the junior and senior class, and won the American Legion award for outstanding character and dependability. Because his parents separated when Burton was 4 and his mother had to go to work, his grandmother cared for him much of the time. His grandfather, a railroad engineer who was also a state legislator, was steeped in Abraham Lincoln lore and there was much talk of books and politics at the dinner table.

When he heard the Air Force was starting an academy, Burton applied. Of 6,000 Illinois applicants, he was the first picked.

That first Air Force Academy class, which graduated in 1959, was a little like the first crop of astronauts, a competitive Right Stuff crowd with high visibility and high expectations. The academy was full of World War II memories, patriotism, and unquestioning loyalty to all things military. "And no one was more straight-arrow than Jimmy," recalls a former roommate, John Howell. "Compromise was not his strong suit."

Burton believed fully in the Air Force honor system and was horrified by the academy's recent cheating scandals. "It's a wonderful thing," he told his home-town newspaper while still a cadet, "to know that the code is so strong. My best buddy served three months confinement to his room because he misread a reg on drinking. He turned himself in."

As the smallest and first class -- 300 started, 100 didn't make it -- the pressure to make good was intense, Howell recalls. "Eisenhower said we were going to build this academy, and the Air Force had a charter to handpick everyone from instructors to students."

Burton's photo album contains a picture of him at the White House with Mamie and Ike, standing ramrod stiff in his dress uniform, one of the four outstanding members of the class picked for this occasion.

Burton's wife Nancy was his high school sweetheart, though they broke up while he was at the academy and she was getting her master's in music at the University of Illinois. Burton was engaged to someone else when he heard that Nancy was about to be married; he promptly broke his engagement and put on a full court press to get her back.

The straight-arrow image remains. Burton is an usher at Springfield United Methodist and Nancy is choir director. He was a Methodist Youth Counselor and coached Little League baseball teams when his son -- now a 25-year-old architecture student -- was small. A 19-year-old daughter is studying biology.

He would probably not be giving the big guns at the Pentagon trouble today except for an illness that changed the course of his career 20 years ago. No one knew what was wrong when Burton, who had become increasingly weak and pale, nearly fainted one day. His blood count was dangerously low, and he was bleeding internally. Because he was born with a malformed stomach, the source was difficult to locate. If he had a bleeding ulcer, for example, it did not show up. Doctors decided to treat him as if he had an ulcer, and eventually the bleeding stopped. But it took a long time, and by then, Burton had been grounded.

"It just really killed him," says one friend. "He loved flying." Friends and relatives say that Burton doesn't talk much about his feelings, but they sense that an "introverted spirituality" pulled him through.

Everyone sw,-2 sk,2 ld,10 says this administration doesn't have a strategy. They have a strategy: "Don't interrupt the money flow -- add to it." A test may interrupt the money flow.

-- Retired colonel John Boyd, Burton's former boss at the Development Plans Office for Air Force Research and Development

"What a loser!" That was the first impression of two of Burton's colleagues when they met the newcomer to the Development Plans Office in the mid-'70s. They were part of a new wave of military analysts taking a fresh and more independent look at how to decide what to buy. "We had to cut out all the malarkey and get down to what was needed and not needed," says one.

Burton had moved rapidly through the ranks, and at least one coworker, cost analyst Charles Spinney, suspected that a don't-rock-the-boat attitude might have helped him in his ascent. Spinney says he "had this strong impression that Burton lived and died by the system; a real defender of the farm. I thought he was hopeless."

The new officer didn't have much impact at first. "We always had to fight for what we wanted," recalls another R&D aide. "I remember after a screaming session with a two-star general, he finally looked me straight in the eye and said, 'You're right.' But during the argument, I thought Burton was going to die, pulling at my sleeve to back off."

But he changed. "It was like watching a child grow up before your eyes," the aide says. "Burton's turned out to be better than all of us . . . he knows when someone's feeding him a line of bull and how to tell them exactly what they're doing and what to do with it."

A moment of truth came when Burton realized that an officer he considered a friend was lying and using him to push ineffective projects. Boyd laid out the case for and against the man and told Burton, "that guy is no friend." It took a few days before Burton agreed.

"There was a fork in the road and he made a decision," says Boyd. "And I might add he's done magnificently."

Decision made, however, Burton found himself facing the classic whistleblowers' dilemma. For while Defense officials have for years maintained that waste, fraud and abuse in Pentagon spending is best uncovered by conscientious bureaucrats working within the system, the short list of critics who have actually spoken out have done so at high personal cost in a decidedly hostile atmosphere.

Knowing Burton's reputation for speaking out against current doctrine, a number of generals tried to block his appointment to the Bradley testing job. "There were 14 stars in all trying to keep him from getting that testing and evaluation job," said Boyd. Dr. Alton Keel, an assistant secretary of the Air Force and Burton's boss at the time, refused to bow to the pressure.

Burton "has absolutely the purest motives of any officer in the Pentagon that I know of," says one military critic of the DIVAD -- the division artillery antiaircraft gun long defended by the Army until Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger decided last year that it didn't work. " He could see I was under stress, beating my forehead against my desk," says the critic with a laugh. "He would come by with words of encouragement: 'As long as you're sure you're right then go ahead.' "

But sometimes, the man adds, " Burton can make enemies by saying things in exaggerated form." The Army consistently says that its computer models rebut Burton's testing points, for example; his response, according to the DIVAD critic, was to call the computer models so useless that "you might as well cut open a goat and read the entrails."

". . . in combat the Bradley Fighting Vehicle will be a rolling deathtrap for the squad it carries. The vehicle's armor is made of aluminum, a metal whose chemical energy when oxidized is ten times greater than that of TNT. When hit by the right type of grenade, mortar, mine, or rocket, this aluminum can be counted on to kill the American soldiers whose lives it is supposed to protect . . . And yet production of the Bradley continues."

-- William Boly, California Magazine, February 1983.

When Burton read this article he thought, let's test the Bradley to see if these charges are true. It took him nearly three years to force the Army to conduct live-fire tests.

This January, after results of the classified tests were sent to Congress, members of Congress quickly released a report in which Burton charged that the tests had been carefully set up to avoid serious damage.

Shots fired at the vehicle were "not random nor representative of the locations of combat impacts," the report stated. "Each of the 10 live fire shots was aimed so as to avoid intentionally striking the explosive elements of internally stowed ammunition -- even though there are likely to be a fair number of direct hits on ammunition in real combat." And according to Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.), the Army put water cans inside the Bradley instead of ammunition boxes that might explode during tests.

The Army says that Burton and Bennett misread the test reports. "Both of those statements are made in ignorance," says Army spokesman Soucy. After one test in which ammunition was hit and the Bradley blew up, the Army stated, ammunition was deliberately moved from the "aim point, the center of mass of the vehicle the point where an attacker would most likely aim ," thus making it less likely that the ammunition would be hit in combat.sk,2 sw,-2

Ridiculous, scoffs one congressional aide involved in the Bradley fight. Moving the ammunition "makes a terrific difference in survivability during this test -- but all combat data shows actual hits are all over the goddam place." Burton followed up with a dense memo concluding, "Instead of most of the hits falling inside the ellipse, as the Army has claimed, clearly most of the hits fall outside."

"Burton does not accept the fact that there are casualties in war," says Soucy. That argument's a "red herring," counters the aide. "The question is whether the vehicle is so constructed that undue casualties occur."

Among the numerous other conflicts over the Bradley test results, one of the most controversial and least convoluted concerns the watering down of dummies.

Burton revealed that dummies -- placed in the Bradley to see if aluminum vapors from the hull could poison soldiers when the vehicle was hit -- had been hosed down before the tests. The hosing meant that Army fatigues were less likely to catch fire and, critics charged, produced far more favorable results.

Soucy says that "fumes from burning clothes were stronger than the vaporifics we were trying to test. We wanted to get the vaporifics, not the smell of cotton burning." One tester who was at the site says "that's b.s.," arguing that burning uniforms would not have any effect on the sensing devices.

The Bradley testing has focused, for the most part, on fairly narrow questions. But much of the ferocity of the dispute has to do with what both sides believe are the larger stakes. The Army sees the Bradley as too crucial a weapon to lose, and argues that it is less vulnerable, faster and more maneuverable than the vehicle it replaces (the M-113, which was used in Vietnam).

Retired brigadier general E.M. Lynch, an armored infantry squad leader in World War II and a veteran of Korea and Vietnam, maintains that the Bradley -- far from an improvement on past personnel carriers -- was ill-conceived from the start. "These Beltway Bandits came up with this dumb concept, 'force multiplier,' it's supposed to be able to do a number of things; including not only carrying troops but fighting too," Lynch says. "So they put the turret and gun on it and all the other things, had to cut down on the size of the squad in order to carry all the ammo . . .Compared to the tank it is so vulnerable but it has to operate in the same environment. So they came up with 'overwatch.' Which means it will sit back hundreds of yards and 'overwatch' the squad with the big turret gun. It's the most ludicrous thing in the world . . .sk,2

"Someone asked if I could get a squad into it. I said, 'Maybe the first -- but not the second. Their first introduction would be watching a complete squad annihilated.' "

Increasingly a number of Pentagon programs are not being tested adequately, and yet someone like Burton gets reprimanded rather than rewarded. It didn't matter who was right or wrong, Burton was immediately branded as a renegade not to be listened to.

-- Anthony Battista, member of the House Armed Services Committee staff

When Burton was given the Ohio-or-else transfer order, influential Hill backers shot off a letter to Weinberger. Colleagues have described the job Burton was to assume at Wright-Patterson -- "deputy director of mission area analysis" -- as "being in charge of counting gas masks and parachutes."

Defense officials note that Burton has served far more time in the Washington area (16 years) than the normal tour (three years, sometimes expanded to six) -- but that time includes service at Andrews Air Force Base and at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at Fort McNair. In any case, members of Congress say they had Weinberger's assurance that Burton would remain through the testing and that this transfer "comes at a crucial time in the Bradley testing," which had come about "entirely due to the effort of Col. Burton."

Burton foes in the Army protest that he is playing the martyr when he really just doesn't want to relocate. "Part of the deal all along," they claim, was that even after his transfer, he would be called back to work on the Bradley tests until their completion. They produce a letter, written by Weinberger to complaining congressmen, stating that Burton was "advised of this possibility on 7 April." Close friends and family members, however, insist that Burton was told about it only after he had turned in his resignation papers.

Both Burton's and the Bradley's futures remain uncertain. Burton has suggested configuration changes that would store fuel and ammunition on the outside of the Bradley, which would add to the cost. Some Bradley critics in the Pentagon and on the Hill believe the congressional investigation will be a whitewash. They note that a principal investigator is on the staff of the Armed Services procurement and military nuclear systems subcommittee, headed by Rep. Sam Stratton (D-NY), who is sympathetic to the Bradley and not to Burton.

"When he leaves there will be a huge void," says Spinney. "Hard-core testing will just go down the tubes. There is just such tremendous institutional pressure, I don't know of another colonel as tough in the building."

Friends say the pressure is getting to Burton, who is looking more and more tired these days. He and his wife have no idea what they will do after July.

"I think he'll come out of this all right," Spinney says. "It is a fundamentally moral question for him; not giving in to inferior equipment that will needlessly kill more people."

Burton loves to sail, unwinding by himself on his boat on the Chesapeake. "If this were a movie," says a friend, "it would end with the Bradley demolished -- and Jim sailing off into the sunset."