In 1957, when MGM released its big-budget Civil War epic "Raintree County," the studio expected the picture to become the "Gone With the Wind" of the 1950s. It didn't. It was nearly a disaster. And yet a mystique has grown up around the picture and something of a cult around that mystique.

The film's fans eagerly await its home video release on July 15, but they won't be getting the whole movie, only most of it. Some 20 minutes of dramatic footage will be left out. The reels are sitting in a vault, ripe for the transferring, but MGM/UA Home Entertainment, which is releasing the cassette version, doesn't want to go to the expense of retrieving them.

"It would cost at least $50,000 to restore that footage, and the studio did not think it worthwhile at this time," says Peter Anderson, vice president of technical operations for MGM/UA Home Entertainment in New York. "A decision was made. It came out of the California office. It's too bad. I would love to have been able to do it."

The fate of "Raintree County" is not unusual in the short new history of home video. There's little to guarantee that the vintage movie bought or rented at a video store is the definitive, complete, director-approved version of the picture. Only fairly recently have home video operations even had access to original negatives stored in studio vaults; before that, they worked from whatever prints were available.

Hollywood has been a sloppy archivist. Footage from films cut during their theatrical runs, or cut for television when moviescrossed the great divide into TV in the '50s, has in some cases been destroyed. For years, the TV version of "Knute Rockne -- All American" lacked its most famous scene, Ronald Reagan's "win one for the Gipper" speech, because the scene was thrown out when the film was sold to TV.

The home video version of "Knute Rockne" now available is complete, the missing scene having been located and restored.

In the case of "Raintree County," there's not much mystery as to the whereabouts of the missing footage. It was cut soon after the film's original release, reducing the running time from 187 to 166 minutes, and resides in a vault in Kansas City. But MGM/UA says the missing reels are on 65 mm film, and that to transfer them to tape requires first converting them, and the rest of the picture, to standard 35 mm film. This would cost not only money, Anderson maintains, but also time, postponing the movie's release date on home video by as much as a year.

Fans loyal to "Raintree County" say they are skeptical about Anderson's claims and that the real problem is a lack of concern; MGM/UA just doesn't care enough to bother. A major complaint among film buffs is that film buffs are not, for the most part, involved in the transferring process; it falls into the hands of technicians and merchandisers, and neither group, the film buffs say, worries enough about the integrity of the films involved.

Video store shelves are loaded with incomplete versions of Hollywood movies, classic and not-so-classic. Stanley Kramer's epic farce "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" was, like "Raintree County," reedited after its reserved-seat "roadshow" engagements in the '50s, and a complete version has never been shown on TV or been available on home video. Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," modern masterpiece or not, was severely trimmed following its Washington world premiere in 1968 and has never been the same since.

Scenes from Kubrick's earlier epic, "Spartacus," that raised censors' hackles when the film was released in 1960 (one included implicitly homosexual dialogue between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis) were cut then and cannot be found today, despite the best efforts of MCA Home Video to locate them. Even so, the "Spartacus" recently released on cassette has been restored to a point not seen since the original release a quarter century ago.

Cine'astes say the home video boom could also be a boon to film culture; movies that have long played television and theaters in abridged or mangled versions could now be put back together and preserved for the ages -- or at least until the next home video format turns everything on its head again. But studio bookkeepers sometimes stand in the way even when the footage can be found.

Tom Bodley, head of postproduction at Samuel Goldwyn in Hollywood and a technician who is also a dedicated film historian, says "Raintree County" deserves better than a perfunctory video release that literally comes up short.

"It's a very final thing, this transferring to home video," says Bodley. "These things should be corrected. Granted, the film is not a classic. But it's one of those pictures that have remained in people's minds. It's a highly professionally tuned film, beautifully photographed. Even MGM has something to gain by putting it back together."

The mystique surrounding "Raintree County" has its dark side. During production of the film, Montgomery Clift, who plays an idealistic young scholar in 1860s Indiana, was seriously injured in an auto accident and required plastic surgery before he could finish the film. Thus his appearance changes from scene to scene. The movie is based on a novel by Ross Lockridge Jr., a brilliant young talent who committed suicide in 1948, after MGM had bought the rights but long before the movie was made.

But there's a positive side to the movie's reputation as well. It marked a turning point in the career of Elizabeth Taylor, a graduation to more serious, substantial roles. Her performance is fascinating to watch, that's for sure, and she is said to be very fond of the movie. Attempts to reach Taylor for comment on the truncated version proved futile, however. A phalanx of representatives said she was making a film and entirely too busy to think about anything else.

What most distinguishes "Raintree County" is its score, a glistening, melodious landmark in the annals of movie music by Johnny Green, who was head of the MGM music department at the time, and whose other hits include the evergreen "Body and Soul." Film historian Ronald Haver, head of the film department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, calls Green's score "one of the most beautiful sound tracks ever created for a film."

Green is among those most pained that the home video version will be incomplete.

"Cinematic ruthless mayhem" is the way he describes what is happening to films like "Raintree County." From his home in Beverly Hills, Green says he could get no audience for his complaints when he contacted MGM/UA. Instead he was offered a free copy of the cassette by a secretary. Green even tried to reach Ted Turner, who still owns the MGM film library (having divested himself of the MGM studios), but there was no response.

"Through calls and plaints and pleas to MGM, we have accomplished something," says Green. "They've reinstated the overture and the entr'acte I wrote for the film. But 20 minutes of cinema, story and pictures are lying around somewhere, and nobody seems disposed to go looking for them."

Big prestige productions like "Raintree County" were treated as movie events in the '50s, and so composers wrote overtures to be played before the picture started, and intermission music that served as a second-act overture. Recently Paramount reissued, in stereo, Cecil B. De Mille's "The Ten Commandments," restoring for the first time since its theatrical release De Mille's own prologue, which he delivers standing in front of a curtain. This is followed by an overture, but somebody at Paramount goofed, because the overture is not the one Elmer Bernstein wrote for the movie. It appears to be from some other film altogether.

CBS/Fox Home Video was given a definitively complete version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" to release in stereo, but to fit the picture on a single cassette, CBS/Fox lopped off the overture, the intermission music and the closing "playout music" that follows the closing credits. These omissions may sound minor, but the film won an Oscar for its sound recording, the great Alfred Newman did the arrangements, and all three musical sections are lustrous enhancements to the finished picture.

Trimming of intermissions has been a persistent form of movie mauling as big studio features from the '50s are transferred to home video. Composer Bernstein builds toward a massive crescendo as the first act of "Ten Commandments" nears its end (after Charlton Heston comes down from the mountaintop where he talked with the Burning Bush) but the crescendo never comes, because the intermission and shots leading up to it have been thrown out.

It seems absurd to have omitted the intermission, since the lengthy movie had to be broken up into two cassettes anyway. Thus there is an intermission, but there is not the intermission.

The same thing happened with "Raintree County," aborting one of the film's most poignant, potent sequences. Elizabeth Taylor has gone mad and run off to the South, and Montgomery Clift vows to go and find her; Eva Marie Saint, as the good girl who really loves him, bids him a tearfully dramatic goodbye at the train station. The dialogue remains, but the dramatic parting has largely parted.

For Green, the sour experience with "Raintree County" isn't his first grievance against home video. He says that on the new stereo edition of "Oliver!," of which he was conductor and arranger and for which he composed original music to supplement the Lionel Bart score, a precredit overture he wrote has instead been affixed to the credit sequence. It runs short, leaving a gaping silence before the credits end.

"They butchered my score, the best I ever did," Green says. "I wrote to Sir John Woolf, the British producer of 'Oliver!,' and sent him a copy of the cassette. He told me he thought the video quality and color registration were awful. And he said he was outraged at what was done to the music. He went to Columbia but got nowhere."

A spokesman for RCA/Columbia Home Video, which released "Oliver!," did not respond to phone inquiries last week.

Transferring films to home video is still a new art and a new science. Major technological improvements have been made since the industry got its start in the 1970s. Anderson says MGM used to run some films through a time compression machine (among them, studio pride and joy "An American in Paris") to save tape, but that this is not done any more. Consumers are becoming more aware of picture and sound quality as VCRs become fancier and more sophisticated, and as high-resolution TV monitors become more common.

Film historian Haver says, however, that there's a long way to go. Films that have fallen into the public domain, or whose home video rights have been bought by smaller, less sophisticated firms, often appear on home video via miserably mushy and jumpy prints. "The thing that irritates me most is that on wide-screen films, they don't go full frame when they make the transfer," Haver says. "What you get is about half the image that was originally there."

Haver says that in Japan, wide-screen films are released in the so-called "letter-box" format, which means the full width of the wide-screen frame is on the screen, masked top and bottom with black. The only film in the United States to enjoy this treatment is Woody Allen's "Manhattan," on MGM/UA Home Video, because it was in Allen's contract that the film could be televised only that way, in order to sustain the original compositions of the cinematographer.

Anderson says it would actually be cheaper to release wide-screen films in the full-frame format, rather than via the traditional "pan and scan" approach, but there is little consumer demand for it. With pan-and-scan, each shot is scanned during transfer so that the center of action is on the screen.

"If they really cared about preserving these films, they'd do it right," says Haver, who presided over the landmark restoration of George Cukor's "A Star Is Born" with Judy Garland, locating and restoring scenes long thought destroyed. The film, probably the most nearly complete version that will ever be available, is on Warner Home Video. "If they really cared about preserving these films, they'd do it right," Haver says. "They care up to a point. As long as it's a marketing point."

Mike Fitzgerald, technical director for MCA Home Video, says one problem faced in transferring films is deciding precisely what the definitive version is. Unlike some other studios, Fitzgerald says, Universal tended to save the complete, 70 mm versions of "roadshow" films after the shorter, 35 mm versions went out in release, so this hasn't been a problem.

"Where Universal gets in trouble is in those cases where they've altered a film dramatically from the theatrical version to the television version," says Fitzgerald. These arefilms that were not cut for TV but instead were "stretched out" for TV -- movies like "Diary of a Mad Housewife," which, when its nudity and strong language were removed, was too short to fill a two-hour time slot. So NBC and Universal, with the director's permission, went back to footage shot but not used in the theatrical version and put it back in.

People who buy the home video version -- the original theatrical release -- write to MCA and ask what happened to the scenes they saw when the movie was shown on TV, Fitzgerald says. The same thing has happened with such TV-stretched films as "Midway," "King Kong" and "Earthquake."

Fitzgerald supervised the "Spartacus" reconstruction. He regrets the film is still not back to its original roadshow running time. Among the missing scenes found, he says, is a long, dramatic tracking shot of a battlefield strewn with corpses. Among those not found was a scene in which an arm was lopped off on camera, considered shockingly violent in 1960. "We tried to find it, but never could," says Fitzgerald. He means the scene, not the arm.

In that same vein, Fitzgerald says MCA Home Video will release a new complete version of James Whale's classic "Frankenstein" later this year, a version that will include, for the first time in 50 years, the scene in which the monster throws the little girl into the pond and drowns her. It, and other scenes considered too gruesome at the time, have been found and restored to the film. "We just put all the pieces together," says Fitzgerald, deadpan once more.

Obviously, home video can be a godsend to film preservation, but one of those mixed godsends with plenty of discouraging aspects. Haver says, "Home video is the best thing to happen to film preservation since television, which made people realize how good old movies were, and showed them to be marketable as well as valuable."

A Canadian film buff eager to see "Raintree County" in its full and original state, but also eager to remain anonymous on the issue, says, "Remastering these films for video is the final, last-ditch possibility for us to see the films the way they were meant to be." Says Bodley, "It is the last chance, I think. Nobody's ever going to drag out 'Raintree County' again and do any work on it, that's for sure."

*As "Raintree County" begins, Nat King Cole sings its title tune, music by Green, lyrics by Paul Francis Webster: "They say in Raintree County, There's a tree bright with blossoms of gold. But you will find, the raintree's a state of the mind, Or a dream, to unfold . . . " The film in its entirety apparently will remain as elusive as the mythical raintree it celebrates -- a dream that will never unfold completely because it is locked in a vault in Kansas City.