'North and South" is one of those massive television productions that comes with credentials too impressive to be ignored.

It is produced by David Wolper, the king of the miniseries format, with the two most successful of the genre to his credit, "Roots" and "The Thorn Birds."

It is taken from the highly successful John Jakes novel of the same title, a book that was called when it was published in 1982 a "panoramic, populous, mildly lusty trek through the pages of American history."

And it is a production in which serious attention to detail is everywhere in evidence -- down to the settings, artifacts, social customs, clothing styles and speech patterns of the day.

Richard T. Heffron directed the filming, done on locations in Charleston, S.C.; St. Francisville, La.; Natchez, Miss., and Camden, Ark.

The series' price tag, $30 million, makes it the most expensive production ever done for the small screen.

But for all of its elaborate packaging, promising abundant goodies inside, "North and South" still deserves to have a consumer warning label attached to it.

First, although "North and South" is basically billed as a Civil War-era piece, the 12 hours of this miniseries (two hours a day for six evenings, except Monday and Friday, starting tonight at 9) deal with a 19-year period leading up to the shelling of Fort Sumter. Those looking for lavish Civil War battle scenes will have to wait for "North and South: Book II" next spring.

Even without the Civil War there is a fair amount of violence, and an abundance of sex. A number of women who step out of line are put back in their places by the backs of men's hands. And there are the perfunctory slave-beatings. Some of the love scenes are among the most explicit you've seen on prime-time network television. And low-cut gowns complemented by uplifting corsets produce as much east-west cleavage as there was between the North and the South.

In short: A soap opera -- even a $30 million one -- is still a soap opera.

But buried beneath it all -- under the layers of melodramatic dialog, romantic intrigue and occasionally predictable turns of plot -- beats the heart of touching storyline, maybe even a thought-provoking one, dealing with male friendship.

The story turns on the relationship between George Hazard (James Read), whose family owns an ironworks in Pennsylvania, and Orry Main (Patrick Swayze), a son of the Old South, who brings enough progressive ideas about slavery to his father's plantation to make him a palatable character.

The men forge their friendship at West Point and then watch that relationship withstand endless assaults brought on by family complications and their basic love for and loyalty to their own families, regions and ways of life. As the war approaches, they face a basic question: Whose side are you on, my friend?

The Main-Hazard friendship came together in a number of ways.

"We developed a real relationship before the shooting started," said Swayze. "There were hassles here and there, but it worked well."

"We shot the operating room scene first," said Read, referring to the point in the story where his character prevails upon a field doctor to spare Orry Main's leg. "So we had some work to do before the filming to get that close. I went to Buddy's ranch and he taught me to ride."

Read and Swayze bring relatively fresh and totally appropriate faces to their roles. Read, 32, looks the part of a Yankee capitalist. He was born in Buffalo and raised in Schenectady. He was Murphy, a series regular, during the first season of "Remington Steele," played an astronaut in "Lace II" and had the part of Teddy Kennedy in "Robert F. Kennedy: A Man and His Times." You might also have seen him in the movies "Blue Thunder" and "The Initiation."

Swayze -- Buddy to his friends -- seems at ease in the part of the son of a South Carolina plantation owner. He is 33, from Houston, has a natural drawl, and has been featured in a series of movies, "The Outsiders," "Red Dawn," "Grandview, U.S.A." and "Uncommon Valor." He had to be persuaded to leave theatrical films to do a TV miniseries. "Taking six months away from features can be death" professionally, he said. But Wolper convinced him of the powerful potential of his role. "He told me he was the biggest thing in miniseries and that I would get lots of attention by playing the part."

Swayze set out to make the role his own. He started by shredding the script.

"Orry is a renaissance man for his time," said Swayze. "He's a part of the South, but he knows there has to be change . . . He was one-dimensional, relatively, as done by Jakes . . . I was concerned about why these two men loved each other."

With that concern in mind, he said he sometimes pushed for dialog changes during the filming. "I'm really into my way," he said with a smile. And he tried to give his character a definite point of view -- or at least an attitude -- born of his own experience growing up in the Southwest.

"I wanted it to be a message to rednecks," he said, "who caused me lots of trouble" during childhood. Those, he said, were the kids who beat him up, broke his ribs and jaw and called him a faggot when he took ballet lessons at age 13. (Years of dance led to a knee injury that has required five operations, leaving Swayze with a slight limp.)

"I wanted Orry to come off as a renaissance man who died (figuratively) in slavery," said Swayze. "He's not defending slavery, he's defending a way of life. He's defending a 17,000-acre plantation. I wanted him to be confused and unresolved."

Indeed, the ambiguity and conflict inherent in the friendship remains unresolved after the 12 hours. By that time, the real test of Hazard and Main has ony just begun.

Wolper, in all his miniseries wisdom, has populated this one with a host of neat cameo performances.

Hal Holbrook dons layers of plastic makeup to play Abraham Lincoln. "He had played Lincoln before for me," said Wolper. "I wanted him."

Robert Mitchum is the Army doctor who spares Main's leg and whose daughter (Wendy Kilbourne) catches Hazard's eye. The doctor is an Irishman with a fondness for whiskey. "That's him!" said Wolper.

Elizabeth Taylor hasn't looked better on film in years. "We wanted an earth-mother character," said Wolper. Earth mother? She plays a madam.

And there's Morgan Fairchild. "There's no better blond bitch in television," said Wolper. But even by cameo standards her part is thin.

Johnny Cash makes a nifty John Brown and Robert Guillaume does well as Frederick Douglass.

And there are surprises, like the one sprung by Phillip Casnoff. A slightly built actor, he plays the show's best villain, Elkanah Bent, the sadistic drill master whom Main and Hazard encounter at the Point.

"I had to go in and win the role," he said. "They really didn't see me in the part . . . I stood two feet from the producers and yelled in their faces" in a rendition of his first scene. "I had to project a lot of venom."

Casnoff got some unsolicited inspiration and instruction for playing the part when he was robbed two weeks before his audition. "There were two of them, they had a gun," he recalled. "They toyed with me." As the Georgia-born drill master, Bent passes on the lesson Casnoff learned.

Kirstie Alley has other lessons in mind in the role of Virgilia Hazard, George's fanatical abolitionist sister. She strikes up a relationship with Grady, a slave, played by Georg Stanford Brown. "Some may not like it," Wolper said of their interracial marriage. "But . . . it fits in the story. She's a stormy abolitionist. You're never quite sure whether she's doing it to prove how liberal she is or for true love."

Virgilia sounds the historical theme of the series when she insists: "Freedom has to be born in blood and fire."

But, noted Wolper, "I did not intend for there to be an incisive historical lesson in 'North and South.' Basically," He said, "it's just a good, juicy story."