WITH THE DEATH last month of Richard Burton, the move to restore some two hours of lost footage to the controversial movie epic "Cleopatra," in which he starred with enamorata Elizabeth Taylor, has gained momentum.20th Century-Fox, the studio that backed and butchered "Cleopatra," denies that the footage comprising what Burton has called "the best performance of my life" exists, but a lean and persistent Los Angeles film scholar and "Cleopatra" buff named Brad Geagley has accumulated a variety of leads toward securing the missing footage.

In the spirit of reconstruction that revived the Judy Garland-James Mason version of "A Star is Born" last year, Geagley is hopeful that by 1986 the public may have a chance to glimpse and reevaluate the financially disastrous production, which (according to Business Week) actually had received 80 percent favorable reviews around the country when it opened in 1963 and was subsequently nominated for Oscars in the categories of best picture and best actor (Rex Harrison as Caesar).

Geagley says "it was Burton's (Marc Antony) part that had suffered the worst butchering. When he was out here in L.A. doing 'Camelot' before he became very ill and pulled out, I had talked to him over the telephone and he had very much wanted to see this done. He said that somewhere in those miles of film was the finest epic ever made and it was terribly unfortunate that audiences were probably never going to see it."

In third grade, Geagley was reading about the historical Cleopatra in an encyclopedia when he felt something "just like an instant electrical jolt -- I had no idea why." When the movie was released, Geagley was 12 and was inspired by the viewing. "I remember thinking, 'Hot damn! This is a great film.' " Today, Geagley, 33 -- employed as director of a design department at an engineering firm dealing in interactive entertainment and education -- finds himself not only trying to restore the original Joseph L. Mankiewicz version of "Cleopatra," but also hired by producer Bernie Sofronski (the former CBS executive behind "Playing for Time") to serve as historical consultant for HBO's planned Cleopatra mini-series (which Ken Russell will write and direct), and writing a two-volume historical novel about you-know-who.

The story behind the making of "Cleopatra," and its subsequent butchery by the studio, was the subject of Geagley's prize-winning film school thesis. "Several years later, I proposed that PBS take the idea behind my thesis and make it into a documentary. PBS wanted to do it, but at that time 1980 , Reagan had just been elected, and all the money went out of the PBS system, and so the project went into abeyance.

"I had gotten an agreement even from Mankiewicz, who has consistently refused to discuss the film, so bitter is he at what happened. I finally convinced 20th Century-Fox to cooperate with me -- that, yes, this footage did exist and they should start looking. It was news to them that 'Cleopatra' had once been seven hours long (in a rough edit), not four. There are many studio regimes that have come and gone since 'Cleopatra' was produced, and they don't know the story behind it. In fact, when they were trying to release the four-hour roadshow version for home video, they called me to okay which print they should use. They didn't know which was the premiere version. Studios are very uninterested in their older movies. My PBS project was geared to reawakening interest in restoring the film, and that was accomplished."

Mankiewicz, who took over the reins of the epic from Roeben Mamoulian and rewrote the film as he shot it in Rome for nearly two years, planned two Cleopatra films that were to run in adjacent theaters or be released in sequence. Each was to be about two hours and 45 minutes. The first would deal with Cleopatra's involvement with Caesar and the second with her subsequent love for Marc Antony. Of course, Elizabeth Taylor's highly publicized romance with Richard Burton gave the second film more box-office clout than the first and made unlikely the possibility that the studio would release two films in sequence. Geagley agrees with Mankiewicz's decision to keep the two stories distinct.

Mankiewicz shot his 327-page screenplay (each screenplay page averages one minute of screen time) under the regime of Spyros P. Skouras, but when Skouras was removed (in part for the alleged overbudgeting of "Cleopatra"), Darryl F. Zanuck replaced him and took a harsher view. Zanuck cut down Mankiewicz's two "intimate epics," according to Geagley, into "one monstrous four-hour film." Today the four-hour version exists only for home video use (where because of the squarish TV picture, about two-thirds of the wide-screen photography is not visible), since Zanuck decided to cut the film down still further -- to three hours 12 minutes -- when the "general release" version was sent out to neighborhood theaters in 35mm. (The original roadshow prints had all been 70mm.)

Frank Rowley, manager of the Regency Theater, a distinguished film revival house on Manhattan's Upper West Side, recently tried to secure a good full-length print to play in 35mm (as part of his series "The Films of Herman J. and Joseph L. Mankiewicz") and had to settle for the shortest version. Even though Films Inc., which handles distribution to theaters of pre-1982 20th Century-Fox films, had recently struck new 35mm prints to replace the faded ones in circulation, there was no four-hour 35mm negative, and the cost of creating one did not seem justified. "I wish they would restore the film," Rowley gripes. "They've decided not to do it for financial reasons."

George Feltenstein, national theatrical sales manager of Films Inc., agrees: "The cost of reducing to 35mm CinemaScope is so high that we would never see any profit from the theatrical marketplace." The longer video version "was made originally for the run on network television years and years ago." He explains that Films Inc. "just spent many thousands of dollars restoring 22 minutes to Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West," a film with a strong cult following.

"Cleopatra" will have to be reconstructed from the shooting script, from edited scenes, from separate tracks of dialogue and from uncut three-strip Todd-AO negative that ran through the camera and may still be in lab vaults in Paris, where much of the editing was done. Geagley notes, "Of course they say it was destroyed. 20th Century-Fox doesn't like to be reminded of what they did. Next to Warner Brothers' 'A Star Is Born,' 'Cleopatra' is the film most known for its butchery at the hands of its distributor. Universal's 'Isadora,' with Vanessa Redgrave, is probably next in line. No studio wants to be known for butchering artists' work, so you have to deal with the fact that they dislike the recognition.

"As Ron Haver of the L.A. County Art Museum, who restored 'A Star Is Born,' told me, 'Studios always say at first that the footage is destroyed because they don't want anyone poking around in their bins.' But they have essentially lost treasure there, and my last source at Fox told me -- although this is not confirmed by the studio -- that they indeed have found a great deal of 'Cleopatra' when they were just recently thinking of restoring it for home use. The processor at Deluxe General, the lab that processed the film, says that 20th Century-Fox is notorious for never throwing away anything."

The rebuilding of "Cleopatra" will enlist the services of director Mankiewicz and composer Alex North, whose score for the four-hour version Geagley calls "the shining success of 'Cleopatra.' You cannot take issue with the music." With credits encompassing "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," North considers his critically acclaimed Cleopatra score to be one of his finest, and at age 73, he looks forward to extending his creation of two decades past.

North says, "There are plans to reissue the albums of many of the old Fox films, including 'Cleopatra.' I just regret not having, for my files and to listen to, more than just the music that's on the album. Or the scores, which they refuse to let you have." He explains that Lionel Newman, who heads Fox's film music department, conducted the Boston Pops doing excerpts from "Cleopatra" three years ago -- but the composer himself is unable to obtain scores and parts to include in an upcoming concert he will conduct in Berlin. "It's always complicated trying to get through to those people at the studios. People change over there so often, and you can't get to Lionel Newman. They still have all the scores and the parts in their vaults."

Geagley sums up: " 'Cleopatra' at four hours is barely a film; 'Cleopatra' at three is, well, Mankiewicz said it best, 'There's a good chance that it may wind up as a handful of the world's most expensive and beautifully photographed banjo picks.

"What I am doing now is trying to interest various film art societies and museums and also the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into providing some sort of funding to see this through. Then at least, a real, full-time search can be mounted. That's how they found "A Star Is Born," and that's the kind of campaign that has to be mounted for "Cleopatra."

"I would very much like to see if Elizabeth Taylor will support this project," Geagley says.