In the final days of the Italian Campaign of World War II, Hana, a French-Canadian nurse working and living in a bombed Italian monastery, looks after a critically burned man who speaks English but cannot remember his name. They are joined by Kip, a Sikh sapper in the British Army who defuses bombs and has a love affair with Hana before leaving, and David Caravaggio, a Canadian Intelligence Corps operative who was questioned by Germans and has had his thumbs cut off during a German interrogation. He questions the patient, who gradually reveals his past.
Babel focuses on four interrelated sets of situations and characters, and many events are revealed out of sequence. The following plot summary has been simplified and thus does not reflect the exact sequence of the events on screen.
In 1891, American Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his mustang, Hidalgo, are part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, where they are advertised as "the world's greatest distance horse and rider". Hopkins had been a famous distance rider, a cowboy, and a dispatch rider for the United States government; in the latter capacity he carried a message to the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment authorizing the Wounded Knee Massacre of Lakota Sioux.
In 1989, Anthony "Swoff" Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) attends or assists to U.S. Marine Corps training before being stationed at Camp Pendleton. Claiming that he joined the military because he "got lost on the way to college", Swofford finds his time at Camp Pendleton difficult, and struggles to make friends. While Swofford feigns illness to avoid his responsibilities, a "lifer", Marine Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), takes note of his potential and orders Swofford to attend his Scout Sniper course.
In 1935, Lawrence is killed in a motorcycle accident. At his memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral, a reporter tries to gain insights into this remarkable, enigmatic man from those who knew him, with little success.
Après les attentats du 11 septembre 2001, une équipe composée d'agents de la CIA et des forces spéciales américaines, menées par le capitaine Mitch Nelson, est envoyée en Afghanistan. Ils collaborent avec le général afghan Abdul Rachid Dostom pour tenter de démanteler les talibans.
Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), a young British officer completing his training, celebrates his engagement to the beautiful young Ethne (Kate Hudson), in a lavish ball with his fellow officers and his father in attendance. When the regimental Colonel (James Cosmo) announces that the regiment is being dispatched to Egyptian-ruled Sudan to rescue the British General Charles "Chinese" Gordon (who is being besieged in Khartoum by Islamic rebels of the Mahdi), young Faversham has serious ethical reservations about the war, and resigns his commission. Shocked by his son's actions, Harry's father (Tim Pigott-Smith) disowns him. Perceiving his resignation as cowardice, three of his friends and his fiancée each give him a white feather, the symbol of cowardice. Ethne breaks off their engagement.
When an Amacore oil rig in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia proves unproductive, Captain Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid) and co-pilot A.J. (Tyrese Gibson) are sent to shut down the operation and transport the crew (Ian, Kelly, Rodney, Davis, Liddle, Jeremy, Sammi, Rady, Kyle, Newman, and Dr. Gerber) out of the desert. However, en route to Beijing, a major dust storm disables one engine, forcing them to crash land their C-119 Flying Boxcar in an uncharted area of the Gobi Desert. Kyle falls to his death and the crash kills Dr. Gerber and Newman. Their cargo consists of used parts and tools from the rig, the rig's crew, and Elliot (Giovanni Ribisi), a hitchhiker. When the dust storm ends, it becomes apparent that they are 200 miles off course with only a month's supply of water. Jeremy (Kirk Jones), thinks about walking to get help, but Rady (Kevork Malikyan) explains that July is the hottest in the Gobi, and that he won't make it.
In 1911, a willful and determined man from peasant stock named Charles Saganne (Gérard Depardieu) enlists in the military and is assigned to the Sahara Desert under the aristocratic Colonel Dubreuilh (Philippe Noiret). Saganne attracts the attentions of Madeleine (Sophie Marceau), the daughter of the regional administrator. In the Sahara, Saganne earns the respect of the Arabs, including Amajan, an independent warrior. After several campaigns, Saganne travels to Paris on a diplomatic mission. After having an affair with a journalist in Paris, Saganne returns to Africa, where he leads a valliant defense against Sultan Omar. He is awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, and marries Madeleine. The onset of World War I puts his success and happiness at risk.
In the early 20th century, Emir Nesib (Antonio Banderas), Sultan of Hobeika, and Sultan Amar (Mark Strong) of Salmaah have been in a border war over a vast barren strip they call "The Yellow Belt". When Nesib wins he forces Amar to agree to a peace pact: the Yellow Belt will belong to neither, becoming a no-mans-land between their territories, and Emir Nesib will take Sultan Amar's sons, Saleh and Auda, as hostages. Amar reluctantly agrees, knowing the hostages are a sacred trust which binds Nesib as well. They both swear to the pact before God. Nesib promises to rear Amar's sons with his own children, Tariq and Leyla.
Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is isolated in the desert, awaiting his partners, Taggart (L. Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin), who are scouting for water. The two plot to seize what little water remains to save themselves. Hogue, who hesitates to defend himself, is disarmed and abandoned to almost certain death.
Moises, père de famille déterminé, fait partie d'un groupe d'immigrants clandestins mexicains entrés aux États-Unis par le désert de Sonora en Californie. Ils sont attaqués par Sam, un américain impitoyable et sans scrupules, qui les chasse sans pitié.
Frank Towns (James Stewart) is the pilot of a twin-engine Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo plane flying from Jaghbub to Benghazi in Libya. Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) is the navigator while the passengers are Capt. Harris (Peter Finch) and Sgt. Watson (Ronald Fraser) of the British Army; Dr. Renaud (Christian Marquand), a physician; Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger), a German aeronautical engineer; Mr. Standish (Dan Duryea), an oil company accountant; and several oil workers that include Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine), a mentally-disturbed foreman; Ratbags Crow (Ian Bannen), a mean-spirited, sardonic Scot; Carlos (Alex Montoya) and his pet monkey; and Gabriel (Gabriele Tinti). A sudden sandstorm shuts down the engines, forcing Towns to crash-land in the desert. As the aircraft careens to a stop, several oil drums and oil drilling gear break loose and severely injure Gabriel's leg. Two other workers are killed.
Cattle rustlers Robert Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro "Pete" Rocafuerte (Pedro Armendáriz), and William Kearney (Harry Carey, Jr.) rob a bank in the town of Welcome, Arizona, but Kearney suffers a bullet wound and they have to flee into the desert, pursued by the posse of Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond), who puts a bullet in their water bag. They eventually lose their horses in a desert storm and end up walking. In their search for water, they come across a water hole, which has, however, been destroyed by the misguided efforts of a bumbling tenderfoot. In his covered wagon left nearby lies his wife (actually Sheriff Sweet's niece), who is pregnant and about to give birth. With the help of the trio, she has a boy, whom she names Robert William Pedro after her benefactors. Before dying, she extracts a promise from his three godfathers that they will take care of him. Moved by her plight, the three desperados uphold their promise despite the acute lack of water.
La survie dans les zones désertiques exige un haut degré d'adaptation des animaux et des plantes. Pendant la journée, la chaleur est insupportable tandis que la nuit frigorifie tout. Après plusieurs semaines de sécheresse suivies de pluies tropicales, les masses d'eau du désert offrent quelques heures de répit à la vie.